Group B - Iran (500-1)
Who are they?
This will be Iran's fifth World Cup appearance, but the first time they have made it to two consecutive tournaments – reflecting their current status as the top ranked side in the Asian Football Confederation. Team Melli made it to Russia at a canter – they were the second side to secure their place, after Brazil. Unfortunately for them, they have been lumbered with a pretty daunting draw. Portugese manager Carlos Quieroz has been in the job since 2011, and has crafted a tactically-astute and defensively solid outfit.
Yet Alex Ferguson’s former assistant manager also has a number of good attacking options at his disposal. Right winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh was the top scorer in this year’s Eredivisie, scoring 21 and assisting 12 times for AZ Alkmaar. Swedish-born Saman Ghoddos was impressive for Ostersunds when they shocked Arsenal 2-1 at the Emirates in the Europa League, while Sardou Azmoun is more than just a target man up front. Iran were unbeaten in qualification but the twin totems of Spain and Portugal are an entirely different proposition – although Quieroz might have a plan up his sleeve for his home nation, whom he managed from 2008-2010.
World Cup moment
Iran have failed to make it to the knockout stages in any of their four World Cup appearances, losing eight games and drawing three. Their sole victory, however, was a big one – a highly emotional and politically-charged 2-1 win over the USA in Lyon in 1998.
How did they get here?
Iran were unbeaten in qualification and became the second team to book their place in Russia after tournament favourites Brazil. They won six and drew four of their 10 group games in the second qualifying round – finishing top ahead of South Korea – and didn’t concede until a 2-2 draw with Syria in their final fixture. Easy.
This is by far Carlos Quieroz’s longest managerial stint, having taken over in April 2011. He is best known for his time as assistant manager of Manchester United, a six-year spell broken up by a doomed season in charge of Real Madrid. The Portuguese has led three different national teams to four World Cups – guiding Iran into the knockouts this summer would arguably be his greatest achievement.
The main man
Direct, quick and strong, Alireza Jahanbakhsh was one of the best players in Dutch football this season. A return of 21 goals and 12 assists is pretty spectacular for an out-and-out wide man.
The one to watch
23-year-old Sardar Azmoun has scored an impressive 23 goals in his 31 appearances for Iran. Despite being given the predictable nickname of the Iranian Messi he is a forward in the Zlatan Ibrahimovic mould, with aerial ability and dead-eyed finishing complemented by a silky touch and great vision.
Had they been drawn in nearly any other group, you’d fancy a smart Iranian side to finally reach the knockout stages. However, it is hard to see them progressing at the expense of the big two in Group B.
Goalkeepers: Alireza Beyranvand (Persepolis), Rashid Mazaheri (Zob Ahan), Amir Abedzadeh (Maritimo).
Defenders: Majid Hosseini (Esteghlal), Ramin Rezaeian (Ostende), Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), Morteza Pouraliganji (Alsaad), Pejman Montazeri (Esteghlal), Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny), Roozbeh Cheshmi (Esteghlal), Ehsan Hajsafi (Olympiacos).
Midfielders: Saeid Ezatollahi (Amkar Perm), Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens), Mehdi Torabi (Saipa), Omid Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), Karim Ansarifard (Olympiacos).
Forwards: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ Alkmaar), Mahdi Taremi (Al Gharafa), Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan), Reza Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen), Saman Ghoddos (Ostersunds), Ashkan Dejagah (Nottingham Forest), Vahid Amiri (Persepolis).