The group stage was relatively breezy for Iran with Guinea being the only team they faced that posed anything close to a threat. Two comprehensive wins against Germany and Costa Rica followed and Iran were through to the Round of 16. Till now, Iran's deceptively solid back four had been quietly doing its job. On Tuesday night against Mexico, their toil was apparent for the first time.
Iran fought off a spirited second-half display from Mexico to emerge 2-1 winners and made history in the process by reaching the quarter-finals of the tournament for the first time. To better their best result at the U-17 World Cup, Iran had to work harder than ever and the big achievement came as a result of a big performance.
With a quickfire two goal-lead, Iran seemed to have put the fixture to bed, just like they did in their last two games. But that oddly inexplicable comment about a two-goal-lead being dangerous reared its head in the game later on when Mexico fought back hard. Iran's steely defence held on against a Mexican wave on a humid Goan night and proved they could handle pressure situations as well as any.
Iran started with five at the back this time; centre-half Majid Nasiri slotted in at the back, replacing the suspended midfielder Mohammad Ghobeishavi. It seemed to be a cautious approach, justified by the knockout nature of the game and vindicated by the end of 90 minutes. Mexico had qualified as the third-placed team from Group F but weren't to be taken lightly.
Against England, one of the strongest teams in the tournament, Mexico had mounted a strong comeback that almost earned them a point. The match had ended 3-2 after England had taken a three-goal lead by the 55th minute. Diego Lainez, who plays in the centre of the park, had scored two goals causing a scare among English ranks. Mexico had even held Asian champions Iraq to a 1-1 draw. It wasn't without reason that Iran were heedful.
And sure enough, Mexico launched an offensive from the first minute, earning a free-kick at the edge of the box on the right. Jairo Torres' smart free-kick found Roberto de la Rosa in the box whose shot was blocked by Iranian bodies in front of the goal. But Iran quickly turned the tables around and grabbed the game by the scruff of its neck.
Left-back Adrian Vasquez was lethargic with his control and clearance on a cross in his box and Mohammad Ghaderi was lightning-quick to pounce on the second ball. Vasquez lunged from behind bringing Ghaderi down and Iran were awarded a penalty in the seventh minute itself. Mohamad Sharifi sent the ’keeper the wrong way with a cool side-footed finish and Iran had the early lead they wanted.
Soon, things got even better for Iran as they doubled their lead with a quick counter. Allahyar Sayyad ran and slipped through Mexican centre-halves Luis Olivas and Carlos Robles and lobbed Cesar Lopez, who was way off his line for his third goal of the World Cup. Mexico, though looking sharp up front, had conceded twice within 11 minutes.
The proceedings were all too familiar. Iran had a big lead early on and they would surely not let it slip. But Mexico offered them a fight they had not yet waged in the tournament thus far. To Mexico's credit, they didn't panic after going giving away two goals in a do-or-die match. Instead, they patiently built up play and maintained possession of the ball, slowly but surely chipping away at the Iranian defence.
Ali Satavi, Ahmad Jalali and Nasiri, the three centre-halves on the night, kept the line tight and pre-emptively disrupted Mexico's chances. The communication between the Iran backline seemed to be the key. Frustrated at not finding a way in, Torres tried a shot from distance as well. His fine effort was matched by an equally fine save from Ali Zadeh.
Mexico's efforts, however, bore fruit in the 37th minute when they pulled one back through an excellent finish from De La Rosa, who engineered the move in the first place. His ball found Daniel Lopez on the right wing, who put a decent cross in the box. Torres received the ball and his vicious shot at goal was parried by Zadeh, but the rebound fell on an unmarked De La Rosa who had ventured into the box. His low shot went into the bottom corner of the goal. Mexico had a golden opportunity to equalise just before half-time.
Mexico came out of the break with a positive outset; they had momentum on their side. They left no stone unturned in their efforts to find an equaliser in the second half, but the Iranian defence, which has been lauded for its solidity and grit, showed that it was worthy of all the praise. Mexico tried and tried and tried, but just could not break down Iran. They did come close on multiple occasions, but Iran's sheer will and Zadeh's heroics between the goalposts withstood the onslaught.
Mexico were even denied by the post on one occasion, as Torres' curling free-kick from the left hit the framework. By the end of it, Iran were completely out of steam. They had run down every inch, blocked, cleared and parried Mexico's efforts to score and the weather did not help either. The fatigue was particularly visible towards the end of the game when Iran sat back, soaking the Mexican offensive.
Sayyad, who probably ran more than any other person on the field, got a chance to put it to bed towards the dying minutes when he was through on goal. With one final effort he ran through and shot a goal, but the Mexican custodian and rushed in and squeezed the space, thus blocking the shot. Iran hung on for six very long minutes of added time and fell on their backs as the referee blew the whistle.
Sayyad was down with a cramp, but there was only joy on his face. Iran had been pushed to the very last inch to earn a place in the quarter-finals. They proved on the night that their resolve only gets stronger under adversity. They will face one of the tournament favourites Spain in Kochi in the next round; their toughest test yet. But Spain know the test Iran pose themselves.
Spain have played in Kochi in the group stage and hence will be more familiar with the conditions. Iran will also be missing Younes Delfi, who picked up a yellow for a silly foul against Mexico and will be suspended for the next clash. Delfi has been an electrifying presence down the right wing and has scored two goals in the tournament as well. But expect Iran to be resolute as a rock. They'll have to concentrate and defend harder than ever against a team that creates chances out of thin air. And if they can hold the Spanish fleet at bay, they could come good on their coach's word and reach the semi-finals.
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Updated Date: Oct 18, 2017 15:34:08 IST