2014 World Cup team preview: Iran

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Getting to know…Iran: This is the fourth World Cup for Iran (1978, 1998, 2006), who have yet to make it out of the Group Stage and have won only one of the nine matches they’ve played in the tournament (a 2-1 victory over USA in 1998). This side, managed by 61-year-old Portuguese manager Carlos Queiroz, are a defensively staunch group that at times puts 10 players behind the ball to absorb pressure before trying to nab opponents on the counter. Of the 32 teams in the World Cup, the Persian Stars are pegged by many to finish at or towards the bottom but not if players like Jalal Hosseini, Javad Nekounam, Ashkan Dejagah and Reza Ghoochannejhad have anything to say about it.

Record in qualifying: Qualified first in Group A of Asian Football Confederation, beating out South Korea for the top spot. In eight matches, Iran took 16 points, scoring eight goals and conceding only two.

What group are they in?: Group F with Argentina, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Nigeria

Game schedule:

16 June, 16:00, Curitiba – Iran vs. Nigeria
21 June, 13:00, Belo Horizonte – Argentina vs. Iran
25 June, 13:00, Salvador – Bosnia & Herzegovina vs. Iran

source: APStar player: Javad Nekounam

The 33-year-old defensive midfielder plays his club ball at Al-Kuwait SC and brings a wealth of international experience (140 caps) to the side. After a strong performance in the 2006 World Cup, Nekounam was in-demand throughout Europe and signed with La Liga outfit Osasuna where he would spend six seasons registering 149 appearances and 24 goals. Since then the powerful destroyer enjoyed a two year spell at Esteghlal before transferring to Kuwait this past January. A possession-based player who relies on simple short passes and combination play to charge forward, Nekounam captained Iran through World Cup qualifying by scoring four times, including the winner against South Korea to secure the top spot in AFC.

Manager: Carlos Queiroz

Perhaps best known as Sir Alex Ferguson’s trusted assistant at Manchester United, Queiroz has managed Iran since 2011. He became coach of the Persian Stars after spending two years as boss of Portugal, with whom he brought to the Round of 16 in the 2010 World Cup. Queiroz is known for his defensive, counter-attacking system, and is a well-traveled manager having coached a variety of international and club sides including Sporting Lisbon, South Africa, New York MetroStars, Nagoya Grampus Eight and Real Madrid, among others.

Secret weapon: Ashkan Dejagah

Premier League fans will be familiar with Fulham’s rampaging winger (above, right), who left his mark on numerous matches this season by scoring a number of impressive goals. Powerful, pacy and possessing a vicious shot, Dejagah is a game-changer in the truest sense of the word. With Iran’s formation and scheme, expect Dejagah to occupy the right wing where his teammates will look to spring him on the counter-attack. Look for Dejagah to link up with Ghoochannejhad as the side’s lone striker or to simply over-power opponents on his own and have a go. Don’t be surprised if the World Cup serves as a stage for the 27-year-old to be snapped up by a top-tier club as Fulham settle for life in the Championship.

Prediction: A point would be an achievement. Getting out of the Group Stage, a miracle. At best Iran could snag a 0-0 draw with Nigeria or Bosnia & Herzegovina but look for Argentina to make the Persian Stars their whipping boys.

Klinsmann side-steps blame, calls USA-Mexico one of world’s best rivalries

Jurgen Klinsmann, USMNT
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The rivalry between the national soccer teams of the United States and Mexico is one of the fiercest and most unique of its kind in the world of sports. Anyone who’s participated in, or simply attended, a competitive fixture between the two sides will immediately attest to that.

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Speaking to ahead of Saturday’s clash against Mexico at the Rose Bowl, it’s quite interesting to hear current USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann describe the rivalry from his point of view, both before and after having coached in it on a number of occasions.

Before we get to that, though, Klinsmann had a bit more blame side step regarding his side’s fourth-place finish at the 2015 Gold Cup, the USMNT’s worst-ever showing at the tournament for CONCACAF nations.

Q: What did you learn from this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, where you lost to Jamaica in the semi-finals?

A: There were so many things that happened in the tournament and decisions that were made that affected the outcome. It was difficult for the players to know what to expect. For Mexico and for Panama it was the same thing. The lesson is that you just have to roll with it and try to control the things you can.

What’s the no. 1 thing players can’t control? Who gets called into the team/plays in the games.

What was the no. 1 problem for the USMNT at this summer’s Gold Cup? Who got called up/played game after game despite performing very poorly. Ultimately, it’s what undid them in the semifinals and third-place game.

Just once — once — would it hurt Klinsmann to answer a question with an “I,” or “me,” or even “we?” The question was “What did you learn,” yet the answer always come back to “the players,” or “they,” or “them.” At this point, Klinsmann either believes he’s infallible, or he’s simply trying to see how many ridiculous statements he can get away with.

Q: You’ve been in the top US job for almost five years now and you’ve met Mexico many times. How would you define the rivalry between these countries on the pitch? Can you compare it with others you’ve experienced?

A: The USA-Mexico rivalry is one of the greats in world football. For me, it compares to Germany-Holland in terms of the intensity and emotion it brings out in the fans. As USA coach, it was a learning curve to understand how much this rivalry means to our fans. We had won some games against big nations, but the reaction from everyone to when we went down to [Estadio] Azteca and beat Mexico there for the first time was just amazing.

Q: What makes the rivalry unique?

A: What is unique is that there are so many Mexican-Americans living in the United States, so the rivalry crosses borders. We have seen many times in these last years that younger Mexican-Americans will wear a Mexico jersey to our game, and when we start doing well they take it off and have a U.S. jersey underneath! More and more they’re supporting us, and we hope to continue to win them over.

Klinsmann gets this one absolutely right. With the two countries situated right next to each other, the aforementioned immigration of so many Mexican soccer fans into the U.S., and the classic battles between the two sides over the years, USA-Mexico not only feels amazing to get one over on your rivals, but perhaps more than anything it’s avoiding that feeling of defeat, of embarrassment, of being taunted and haunted for days, weeks, months and sometimes years, that makes beating the old foe so satisfying.

Ozil, Coquelin: Arsenal can win the title this season

Mesut Ozil, Arsenal FC
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I suppose, in theory, that any Premier League club that fields a team could win the league title for a given season, so the above headline could have been written in reference to any one of 20 teams a few short weeks ago.

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Fast forward eight rounds of fixtures to the present day, and it’s becoming clearer and clearer with every passing week that it’s a three-horse race — Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United, who currently sit 1-2-3 atop the league — for the 2015-16 Premier League title.

So — and stick with me for just a second — why not Arsenal? [The crowd gasps loudly] Arsenal midfielders Mesut Ozil and Francis Coquelin believe the Gunners have what it takes to win the title this year, so why doesn’t anyone else?

Ozil and Coquelin, on Arsenal’s progression to title contenders — quotes from the Guardian:

Ozil: “We have a great team with many world-class players. Our goal is to win the Premier League and I think that this season it’s possible to do it, if we all stay healthy. But the season is long.”

Ozil: “I didn’t expect [Bayern Munich] to beat Dortmund 5-1. Their recent results show they are simply in great shape … But our victory against Manchester United was a sign: when we play and want it 100 percent, then we can beat Bayern.

“We are playing at home. Although we have respect for them, we don’t have any fear. We know how to score goals against Bayern and we can be successful. It will be difficult – but we have the potential to beat any team.”

Coquelin: “We proved a lot of people wrong. Inside the dressing room we knew we could do good things this season. We knew we could be contenders, but obviously we have to be consistent.

“We are getting stronger against the big teams. We beat City last season, now United. It’s all about consistency. The league is getting tougher, so we need to be getting results every week … We knew we had to put it right after Olympiakos and that’s what we’ve done.”

Coquelin is absolutely right — no one expected Arsenal to throttle Man United the way they did on Sunday. The Gunners acquitted themselves quite well, though it should be mentioned that Louis Van Gaal set up United to fail miserably with the immobile midfield duo of Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger against a quick, dynamic Arsenal unit.

[ MORE: “Super computer” predicts final Premier League standings ]

That’s not meant to take anything away from Arsenal’s scintillating performance, because they did exactly what they should be doing against a poorly planned side — that’s not always been the case for Arsenal against top teams. The Gunners will play hosts to Man City on Dec. 19; perhaps we’ll better be able to dub them contenders or pretenders based their showing that day.