May 27, 2024
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2,091 views – TEHRAN, Competitive Football returned to one of Asia’s finest football temples, the Azadi stadium, after almost two years, but unfortunately Team Melli had to play Syria in their AFC World Cup qualifying final round opener in front of empty stands, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Iran coach Dragan Skocic, who has led his team to seven consecutive victories in as many games since taking over from the sorry Marc Wilmots had to do without several key players, such as Ehsan Hajsafi, Sadegh Moharrami, Morteza Pouraliganji, Majid Hosseini and Sardar Azmoun, who had to sit out due to a one game suspension for yellow cards from the previous round. Most importantly, the Croat couldn’t even attend himself, as he is still recovering from a COVID infection and only could give instructions to his assistant by phone.

The homeside fully dominated Syria, who had to forfeit star striker Al Somah due to injury, in the opening stage of the match, and should have taken an early lead but Shoja Khalilzadeh’s free header to a Saman Ghoddos corner kick went wide. After further dangerous attacks wasted by Mehdi Taremi and Alireza Jahanbakhsh, the guests woke up and had the most dangerous opportunity before the break, when Omar Khirbin freed himself from Khalilzadeh in the box, but failed to get his shot on target.

Team Melli continued to have the far bigger share of possession, while Syria was defending deep and waiting for counter opportunities, but only half-chances occured on either side before the halftime whistle.

After Saman Sarlak had already been replaced injured by Saeid Ezatollahi in first half, Iran subbed in Milad Mohammadi and debutant Saleh Hardani for the active but often unlucky Ghoddos and the disappointing Jafar Salmani.

Little changed through the changes, except Iran now being stronger over the right side with the lively Hardani as full-back, and this paid off after 56 minutes. Khalilzadeh played a world-class long pass to Hardani, who had broken down the right wing and layed the ball off to the otherwise underperforming Ali Gholizadeh. The Charleroi man found Taremi in the box, who forwarded the ball once more and Jahanbakhsh curled the ball on goal and beat the keeper thanks to a nasty deflection.

The goal unfortunately killed the game, as Iran suddenly failed to keep up the concentration and losing the ball far too often despite remaining in control of possession, but Syria was far from being dangerous upfront, so Iran managed to hold on to the lead without major problems.

The win puts Iran on top of the group after the first matchday. Skocic’s men will next take on Iraq on neutral soil in Qatar, as the opponents are still not allowed to play in their homecountry.