Veterans from both sides will hold the key in what could be a fast-paced, box-to-box match.
Who: Wales vs Iran, Group B
Where: Ahmed bin Ali Stadium
When: Friday, November 25, at 1pm (10:00 GMT)
FIFA ranking: Wales (19), Iran (20)
Leading into the World Cup, Wales suffered a run of poor form in the UEFA Nations League. Yet that came right after their dramatic World Cup qualifying campaign, during which they lost only one match in 10 – and that was to Belgium, who are among the favourites to lift the trophy in Doha on December 18.
So what does that tell us? When on form and without injury, the Welsh veteran trio of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen can make life very difficult for opposing teams.
But that is no small caveat. Allen continues to slog on in Swansea – where he injured his hamstring less than a month ago. Meanwhile, Ramsey, who picked up a hamstring injury in September, and Bale, who also had a recent leg injury, have traded in the rugged mountains and valleys of Wales for the warmer climes of Nice and Los Angeles – where they both struggle to get game time.
The Welsh reliance on its experienced stars was on show in the team’s opening game of the World Cup, where a late Bates penalty ensured they got a point through a draw against the United States.
Iran, meanwhile, want to make a round of 16 appearance for the first time at a World Cup. And this game is key to those hopes after Team Melli – as they are known – were trounced 6-2 by England in their opening game of the World Cup.
Like Wales, they will depend on an experienced hand – or rather, foot. Since the 2020-21 season, Mehdi Taremi has been the top scorer in Portugal’s football league, with 42 goals. The 30-year-old, who scored both of Iran’s goals against England earlier this week, has 18 months of experience playing in Qatar.
Taremi will be leading Iran’s front line, along with Alireza Jahanbakhsh of Feyenoord Rotterdam and Sardar Azmoun from Bayer Leverkusen. Azmoun was injured while playing for Leverkusen in early October, but is fit to play in Qatar.
In the two games since Iran’s Coach Carlos Queiroz has been reinstated, the team have played a 4-1-4-1 defensive formation with a floating player ahead of the defenders, allowing the midfield to press further up the pitch. In attack, they have switched to 4-3-3.
This flexibility in formation and counterattack give Team Melli a similar style of play to the Dragons – the nom de guerre of the Welsh side. Expect fast breaks along the wings from both teams. These are not teams interested in possession for its own sake. Don’t be expecting much tiki-taka in this game. Do be expecting pacy, box-to-box action.