(Reuters) - Factbox on the Iran national team ahead of the 2018 World Cup:
FIFA ranking: 36 (till June 7)
Iran will be appearing at the World Cup finals for a fifth time, although qualification for Russia is the first time the country has booked a spot at successive tournaments having previously played in 1978, 1998, 2006 and 2014. The Iranians are still looking to progress to the knockout rounds for the first time and have won just one match, against the United States, in France in 1998.
Carlos Queiroz: Former Real Madrid and Portugal coach Queiroz is leading the Iranians to the World Cup finals for the second time after also steering the country to Brazil in 2014. The pragmatic Portuguese took over in April 2011 and has turned Iran into Asia’s number one team, with a focus on defensive discipline while harnessing some of the continent’s best attacking talent.
Sardar Azmoun: The heir-apparent to Iranian great Ali Daei, 23-year-old Azmoun has established himself as Iran’s leading forward since breaking into the team in the lead-up to the 2015 Asian Cup finals. As comfortable in the air as he is on the ground, the Rubin Kazan forward carries a constant goal scoring threat.
Alireza Jahanbakhsh: Exciting winger Jahanbakhsh goes into his second World Cup finals off the back of a remarkable season in the Netherlands’ Eredivisie, where he has been one of the standout players for AZ Alkmaar. Quick and skilful, Jahanbakhsh can play on either flank or behind the striker.
Saeid Ezatolahi: Ezatolahi has picked up the mantle of predecessors such as Karim Bagheri and Javad Nekounam as the man who makes Iran tick from central midfield. The 21-year-old’s performances in front of the defense have been instrumental in the country’s impressive form over the last three years.
Queiroz has regularly complained about the difficulties he has faced in preparing his team for the World Cup, in particular the domestic-based section of his squad, but Iran have recorded several solid results since qualifying. A draw with hosts Russia in Kazan was followed by wins over Venezuela, Sierra Leone and Algeria as well as a narrow loss against Tunisia.
How they qualified: Iran were the first Asian team to book their place at the 2018 World Cup, with their miserly defense ensuring the goals of Azmoun would take the team into pole position in their qualifying group ahead of South Korea and Uzbekistan.
Prospects: Drawn in a challenging group with Morocco, Spain and Portugal, the Iranians will be looking to pick up a win in their opener against the Moroccans to ensure their quest for a first-ever place in the round of 16 stays alive until their final game, against the Portuguese. Well-drilled and growing in experience, Iran could spring a surprise against either Spain or Portugal if they gain that morale-boosting victory over Morocco.
Writing by Michael Church, Editing by Christian Radnedge