AFC - Pragmatism is the fundamental coaching philosophy of Carlos Queiroz and the Portuguese coach, once again, allied defensive solidity and attacking efficiency for Iran to defeat Uzbekistan en route to Team Melli securing their place at next year’s FIFA World Cup.
A fifth appearance at the World Cup and the country’s first-ever back-to-back qualification underline Iran’s current position as the highest ranked team in Asia as they produced yet another efficient display.
Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi claimed the goals that sealed qualification, but this was yet another win built on the prowess of Queiroz’s defensive unit, who have now gone a remarkable 11 qualifying games without conceding a goal.
Ezatolahi the key to Iran's defensive dominance
While Jalal Hosseini’s experience in the centre of defence plays a key role in how the Iranians organise their backline, it is the presence of young central midfielder Saeid Ezatolahi that has become key in stifling the efforts of the opposition for Queiroz’s team.
Tutored by the man he has effectively replaced, Javad Nekounam’s long-term successor at the heart of the team is now, along with Azmoun, one of the first names on the team sheet, despite his relative inexperience.
He proved quietly and decisively effective yet again for Iran last week, patrolling the area just inside the opposition’s half and often cutting out Uzbekistan’s attempts to launch attacking moves at the source on his own or in partnership with central midfield partner Ali Karimi.
The duo provide a shield in front of a defence that denied Uzbekistan a shot on target for the entire 90 minutes and that also allowed full-backs Milad Mohammadi and Ramin Rezaeian the security to join the attack when Iran were in possession.
Azmoun taking over Daei's mantle
Any centre forward who has pulled on the famous white shirt of Team Melli over the last decade has had to deal with comparisons with the legendary Ali Daei, but Sardar Azmoun is now going some way towards justifying the links by scoring crucial goals in big games.
He scored the only goal in the home win over Korea Republic last October that underlined Iran’s position as favourites to qualify from the group, and he claimed his side’s opener against Uzbekistan with a coolness only the very best strikers possess. Azmoun’s striking prowess belies his young years.
He appears, too, to be starting to develop a partnership with Mehdi Taremi that will also bring back memories for older Iranian fans, with Taremi’s busier style reminiscent of another former AFC Player of the Year, Daei’s former partner in attack Khodadad Azizi.
Against Uzbekistan he converted one of the three chances he was presented with while also playing a key role in Taremi’s second, with that goal killing off any hope the visitors had of launching a late and unlikely comeback.
Uzbekistan limping over the line
Uzbekistan made an impressive start to the qualifying campaign, picking up back-to-back wins over Syria and Qatar before losing to Iran in Tashkent in early October.
Since then, though, the country’s hopes of an automatic berth at the World Cup have been hit by inconsistency and a lack of goals. Just four goals in the last six games has seen Uzbekistan’s campaign stall.
Once again the front line struggled against Iran, with Samvel Babayan’s side not registering a single shot on target throughout the 90 minutes. And as the graphic above shows, much of the game was played in the Uzbek half, with the home side comfortably dominating possession.
While other teams have had the same problem against the Iranians at the Azadi Stadium, the Uzbeks need to find a solution quickly or risk being overtaken in the playoff spot by one of the teams lurking below them.