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Russia 2018 Watch: Iran defy odds

PUBLISHED: 07:00 16 June 2018

The 2018 World Cup is being played in Russia

The 2018 World Cup is being played in Russia

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Read our World Cup blog which will be featuring over the coming weeks. Lee Power reviews the second of three matches on day two of the tournament

I wasn’t expecting Morocco v Iran to be my first watching brief of the 2018 World Cup. But sometimes you have to take one for the team.

I’d read somewhere in the build-up to the finals about this particular fixture being “a tough game to sell to a TV audience” and I can’t imagine ITV’s viewing figures for the 4pm kick-off will have been that great for the battle of the Red, White and Greens.

But history was made thanks to a 95th-minute own goal and I certainly learnt plenty from the comfort of my sofa, despite the incessant drone of the vuvuzela-type instruments being used by supporters in the stands.

“No boots, no problems,” said commentator Sam Matterface when summing up Iran’s 1-0 win, referring to the fact the victors had not been able to receive a delivery of Nike boots, due to US sanctions.

Apparently, Carlos Queiroz’s men had not been able to attend overseas training camps either, for similar reasons.

And with reigning European champions Portugal and 2010 World Cup winners Spain also in the group, officials from both Iran and Morocco had called this game ‘their World Cup final’.

Lose your first game and you might as well go home, as chances are you’re not getting a point against the Portuguese or Spanish in your other group games.

And with the match being played in a stadium nicknamed ‘The Spaceship’ it was somewhat apt that qualified rocket scientist – Iain Dowie – was also in the commentary box said Matterface.

Carlos Queiroz is manager of the Iranian national team (pic PA)Carlos Queiroz is manager of the Iranian national team (pic PA)

Both sides had plenty of clean sheets behind them in recent games, with Iran having gone 1,021 minutes without conceding during Asian qualifying (they allowed only 5 goals in 18 games). You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to realise goals were going to be at a premium.

Morocco were playing their first match at a World Cup since 1998 – having just lost out on the bid to host the 2026 finals to the USA/Canada/Mexico triumvirate – and led by the “suave-looking” Herve Renard, who apparently a double for someone in Game of Thrones and was the front cover star of Morocco’s version of ‘Hello’ magazine in April.

Apparently he once went to Amsterdam to persuade one of his players, who was having second thoughts about turning his back on international football, to carry on playing for the national team. A smooth talker? His team certainly looked the smoother of the two in the first half, despite being “the great under-achievers in African football” according to Matterface.

They went close midway through the first half in a goalmouth scramble, which led to a brief VAR check for handball, but then Iran countered smartly. It was good to hear that one of their players had appealed for women to attend matches back home, as his mum and sisters hadn’t been able to see him play.

Morocco boss Herve Renard (pic Clive Gee/PA)Morocco boss Herve Renard (pic Clive Gee/PA)

But how the officials missed such a blatant foul throw-in by Amiri is beyond me.

Morocco dominated possession by 67-33% in the opening half hour but, after seeing one of the Iranians blaze a long-range free-kick high over the bar – “I admire his confidence,” said Dowie – it was Iran who finished the first half the stronger as a good chance was saved and another free-kick fizzed narrowly over.

“It’s been an entertaining clash of different styles, but that is the rich tapestry of the World Cup,” said Matterface as the scoreline remained blank at the break, having also mentioned how one of the Moroccans had been training as a carpenter in Casablanca and had scored just four minutes into his debut against Uzbekistan.

Forsaking the half-time analysis of pundits Ryan Giggs, Eni Aluko and Slaven Bilic, I settled down once again for the second half.

Amrabat continued to look lively for Morocco on the right, as their pass count reached 226 compared to Iran’s 71 by the 51-minute mark, according to one graphic.

But he was forced off having banged his head on the ground in a heavy fall by the touchline, soon after Iran captain Shojaei had been replaced before picking up a second yellow card.

“He’s lucky to be playing after a dispute with the Sports Minster,” said Matterface, who regaled us with another tale of how one of the players had chosen to represent Morocco over Holland, which had led the great Marco van Basten to allegedly ask ‘how stupid must you be to choose Morocco when in contention for Holland?’

Another player “used to work for Burger King – and if he scores it’ll be a whopper” added our audio guide, who also told us that Saman Ghoddos, of FK Ostersunds, had scored in a friendly for Sweden 18 months ago, but then got an Iranian passport last year and here he was.

Former West Ham defender Manuel Da Costa came off the bench for Morocco, but then it was heartening to see his team-mate Hakimi fail to control a simple pass near the left touchline, letting the ball roll underneath his foot and out for a throw-in, in true Sunday League style.

Iran’s Rezaeian was clipped at the other end and embarked on a series of dramatic rolls, estimated at six, of which “Tom Daley would’ve been proud”.

Goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand produced a good low save to his right in the closing minutes to keep out Hakim Ziyech and, having earlier learned that he used to be a pizza delivery driver and was “getting his first slice of World Cup action” we were told he had been homeless and worked in a car wash as well.

Six minutes of stoppage time began with a late tackle and clash between players and “a problem on the touchline, a bit of a fracas”. The camera then cut to Renard who was shaking the hand of Queiroz. Smooth.

Then with barely 90 seconds left on the clock, Iran whipped in a free-kick from the left and Aziz Bouhaddouz produced a diving header at the near post to send the ball flashing into the net. His own net.

So despite not attempting a single shot on goal in the second half and outpossessed 68-32% overall, Iran had only their second win at a World Cup, the other being the 2-1 success over the USA in France 20 years earlier.

The third and final game of day two between Portugal and Spain was a thriller apparently.

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