In 2014, Iran were on their way to their way to their most famous result in World Cup history, trumping their stunning win over USA in 1998. The clock was running down to the full-time whistle against two-time champions Argentina. That, of course, was before Lionel Messi cut in and unleashed an unstoppable shot to the bottom corner in the 89th minute of the game.

Four years later, in their 2018 World Cup opener, there was no Messi. This time, they would inflict a heartbreaking loss on Morocco through an Aziz Bouhaddouz own goal. After being dominated for long periods against a Morocco side that showed plenty of zest but little bite, the result was as smash-and-grab as smash-and-grab can possibly get. That Iran were under immense pressure was summed up by a slew of bemusing numbers:

Carlos Quieroz’s side could not muster a single shot on target in the second half before Morocco’s hearts sank in the third minute of stoppage time. They could also not muster a single shot on target in the second half, and could not complete one-third of the passes managed by Morocco.

With Iran’s only second win in World Cup history, the much-vaunted Asian sides got some breathing space. There were question marks if any of the sides from the continent could match up against the rest. Before the game, there was the unwanted statistic of no Asian side registering three points since Japan in 2010.

Some respite for Asia

To compound matters, Saudi Arabia on the opening day, were taken to the cleaners by hosts Russia. Expectations surrounding Japan and Korea, despite their tall reputations and being regulars at the quadrennial event, are largely muted.

Iran’s approach is something many a lower-ranked team in Russia may have taken note of. It was something that was reminiscent of Portugal from two years ago when they won the European Championships. Of course, this is a stark contrast to the changes that club football – in the Champions League and domestically – has gone through with teams preferring a possession-based model.

Packing men behind the ball and nicking a goal on the counter-attack has been rendered somewhat obsolete.

The verve that Morocco showed in their attacks during the first half suggested that the match would end up with a different scoreline. The African side, in the World Cup for the first time since 1998, had the Iranian backline running for cover from the early exchanges.

Amine Harit was menacing from the left flank. Ayoub El Kaabi was finding pockets of space behind the centre-backs, and Younes Belhanda was powering forward from the right.

Iran were also poor during the few times they had the ball. A Morocco goal looked imminent. What the possession statistics didn’t show was the lack of cutting edge opportunities to test Iranian goalkeeper Ali Beiranvand barring a close-range effort from Morocco skipper Mehdi Benatia.

The second half saw Herve Renard’s side lose their rhythm altogether in what was a dreary period of football; there were vile challenges, play-acting, and confrontations. The ball remained static in the middle of the park.

Quieroz reigns supreme

The warning signs were there for the Morocco side, who were in a terrific run of form before touching down in Ekaterinberg. After seeing off an all-out onslaught, Iran’s quick forwards were steadily trying to puncture holes in the opposition defence.

From a breakaway counter, Karim Ansarifard found himself in the box, only to falter with his final delivery from the left. Then came what was easily the best chance of the game. Within a split-second, the highly-rated Sardar Azmoun found himself through on goal, but was denied by a fine effort from Monir El Kajoui.

Quieroz knew what he was doing with this team, with whom he has been a part of for the better part of a decade. The former Real Madrid coach earned his name, with his inputs on players maintaining organisational shape without the ball, at Manchester United where he was Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant.

Iran’s land of promise arrived from almost comical circumstances. Quieroz and Iran showed what it takes to soak in the punches before landing the knockout one. Over here, though, it was an Eid gift. They combined to produce what will certainly be one of the results of the tournament, and teaching teams a lesson to work within their limitations.