Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Whither the old-fashioned winger, eh? Notable by his much-missed absence, in an era of resolute rearguard actions, the touchline-hugger might finally be undergoing something of a resurgence. Pep Guardiola has just won the English Premier League while employing two of them. And, here, a 34-year-old Ricardo Quaresma was singularly responsible for unlocking Iran’s famously stout defence.
Quaresma’s inclusion, at the expense of Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva, surprised many observers. But the well-traveled Besiktas maverick has long out-batted his club average for the Selecao.
Cristiano Ronaldo, of course, is tailor-made to finish crosses, and Quaresma is only too happy to oblige. Since returning to the Portuguese fold four years ago, the winger has scored six goals, and assisted 13; laying seven on a plate for his captain.
Meanwhile, throughout that same four-year period, his fellow countryman Carlos Queiroz was busy buttressing further Team Melli’s now legendary defence. By the end of their fifth qualification game, Iran still hadn’t conceded a single shot on target. And the same outstanding organisational qualities have already been on show this summer, against both Morocco and Spain.
Despite needing a win to progress, Queiroz unsurprisingly met the challenge of Portugal with more of the same. The Mozambique-born coach again opted for a low-block, with an ultra-tight back-four, and striker Sardar Azmoun dropping goalside of the opposition midfield.
Incredibly compact from back-to front and side-to-side, and applying fantastic pressure in their own-half, Iran’s defensive unit is a fearsome prospect for any attack. But, like any rearguard action of this nature, it has one major Achilles heel: width.
And boy did Quaresma provide it, the winger regularly catching left-back Ehsan Haji Safi between two stools. The Iran captain was torn between following his narrow positional instructions and running out to meet his touchline tormenter.
Haji Safi chose the former early on, leading to two near-disasters from goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand. The Persepolis stopper, who later saved a Ronaldo penalty, flapped at two Quaresma deliveries that his captain opted not to close down.
Alas, when the left-back did rush out to Quaresma, the consequences were even more dire for his side. This is how the 34-year-old’s characteristic outside-of-the-boot finish came about: Quaresma drawing out Haji Safi, before engaging in a nifty one-two with the excellent Adrien Silva.
Quaresma’s positioning, high and wide, also permitted Cedric Soares to play a relatively reserved game. The right-back merely played a supporting, rather than overlapping, role, which was for the best given the frequency with which Iran have counterattacked down the left in this tournament.
Vahid Amiri’s energy has been key to these impressive attacking transitions, with the dynamic box-to-box midfielder bombing forward, and wide, at every opportunity. And it was Amiri who slashed wide in the seventh minute, after Alireza Jahanbakhsh had broken in behind Raphael Guerreiro.
Guerreiro was just off the back of an absolute stinker against Morocco’s Nordin Amrabat; the African’s concussion notwithstanding. And with the Dortmund full-back more advanced than Soares, allowing Joao Mario to drift inside, Jahanbakhsh and Iran sensed a right-wing opportunity.
Guerreiro was booked during the first-half for illegally arresting a Jahanbakhsh counterattack. But, broadly, thanks to some poor first-balls out of defence, Iran failed to take regular advantage of this clear mismatch. The highest-ranked Asian side only managed one shot on target before the break: from a set-piece, the source of all six of their chances against Morocco, too.
Hopeful long-balls to Azmoun were very much the order the day, then, with Pepe nodding most of them away comfortably before the break. And Iran’s collectively negative positioning limited second-ball opportunities anyway.
All of that changed utterly after half-time, however, in a VAR-dominated frenzy from which Iran, ultimately, should have emerged triumphant. Team Melli’s sense of adventure, in search of an equaliser, was ramped up only marginally at first, though. However, that slight risk-injection did create a pocket of space behind Omid Ebrahimi for Joao Mario to instigate Ronaldo’s penalty award.
Fortunately for Iran, Ronaldo missed, before Azmoun and friends turned the tables on Pepe and the rest of the Portugal back-four. The Rubin Kazan striker improved from winning 29% of his first-half aerial duels to winning 57% after the break. And substitute Saman Ghoddos, introduced wide-left in Queiroz’s 4-1-4-1, positioned himself brilliantly to snag the seconds.
Ghoddos struck an Azmoun knock-down wide on 72 minutes, prompting Fernando Santos to introduce an extra midfielder. The Portuguese coach moved to a 4-1-4-1 of his own, adding Joao Moutinho to the fray in the hope of plugging the gaps Ghoddos was exploiting.
Alas, that change of shape meant asking André Silva, out on his feet by that point, to play left-wing. And it was the AC Milan striker who allowed right-back Ramin Rezaeian to deliver the deep-cross that Soares, apparently, handled.
Karim Ansarifard, one of several in-form Iranian forwards who didn’t get the nod here, did the deed from 12 yards. But Mehdi Tarimi, Ghoddos’ fellow winger, did not. Wesley Sneijder’s Al-Gharafa team-mate wasted yet another route-one chance, fashioned again by Azmoun and Ghoddos, right at the death.
Portugal’s physically outmatched rearguard, and its positionally suspect midfield, would live to fight another day. Iran, meanwhile, would go home with heads held high; unlike the evening’s misfortunate Paraguayan referee.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112