Iran snatched a dramatic victory against ten-man Wales with a pair of stoppage-time goals on Friday morning.
Ahead of Wales’ second group game, Gareth Bale twice reiterated the line: “Football games aren’t so easy,” How right he was.
Under the sweltering lunchtime heat, Wales spent the vast majority of a stodgy slog on the back foot long before goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey was dismissed in the 87th minute. Iran struck the woodwork twice and were denied by Welsh flesh many more times before Roozbeh Cheshmi and Ramin Rezaeian sealed Iran’s first World Cup win against European opposition.
Iran were denied an early lead following a flurry of mistakes befitting the scratchy, scrappy nature of the first half.
Connor Roberts fired a blind pass across the pitch into the path of Alireza Gholizedah. Exchanging a zig-zagged one-two with Sardar Azmoun into the penalty box, Gholizedah needlessly strayed offside before finishing off a move VAR swiftly ruled out.
Moments earlier, Kieffer Moore hung out one of his long legs, stabbing a volley into Hossein Hosseini’s chest before a stray boot from his namesake, Majid, caught the towering Welsh striker in the face.
After the mauling suffered by England in the opening game, Iran once again resembled the gritty, obdurate foe forged under Carlos Queiroz’s iron will. During his first spell in charge, Iran kept ten clean sheets in 16 games at major competitions under Queiroz.
The return of the so-called ‘Iranian Messi’ certainly helped Team Melli’s plight. Within ten minutes of the restart, Azmoun burst behind the Welsh backline, clattering a firm effort against Hennessey’s left-hand post. Gholizedah collected the loose ball, bending a left-footed effort off the other upright before Azmoun stooped to tamely nod the rebound into a grateful Hennessey, who was prone on the turf.
Before the tournament, Wales manager Rob Page described the meeting with Iran as a “winnable” match. After drawing with the United States in their opener earlier this week, it turned into a “need to win” contest.
With that urgency in mind, Page shifted his side into a back four for the final half-hour – although that served to expose Wales on the counter. Alongside a flood of red shirts hauling themselves in the way of Iran’s mounting tally of shots, Hennessey tipped away Saeid Ezatolahi’s low effort scuttling towards the bottom corner.
The Welsh number one made the swift fall from hero to villain in the dying embers, losing a foot race with Mehdi Taremi to a ball over the top before flattening the Porto forward with a kick to the chest. Somehow it took a VAR review for the referee to award the first red card of the tournament.
Sinking deeper and deeper, Cheshmi collected a half-hearted clearance on the edge of the box with space and time to drill a crisp strike into the bottom corner in the 98th minute.
With red shirts strewn across the pitch in a desperate bid for an equaliser, the indefatigable Rezaeian found himself at the sharp end of a counter-attack, coolly clipping the ball over Hennessey’s replacement, Danny Ward, as the clock ticked to 101.
GK: Wayne Hennessey – 3/10 – A moment of misjudged madness undid his good work.
CB: Chris Mepham – 6/10 – Also seemed to be in a rush to make a pass or narrowly nick a tackle but came out on top more often than not.
CB: Joe Rodon – 5/10 – Caught charging out the backline with more aggression than accuracy.
CB: Ben Davies – 6/10 – The most willing member of the Welsh back-three to push into midfield.
RWB: Connor Roberts – 4/10 – A big fan of VAR after the distant officials spared his blushes following a bizarre cross-field pass attempt.
CM: Aaron Ramsey – 2/10 – Unfazed by constantly giving the ball away as he continually tried to pull off flicks and passes of the highest difficulty.
CM: Ethan Ampadu – 5/10 – Showed more calmness than most amid the midfield mayhem but didn’t offer much protection off the ball.
CM: Harry Wilson – 5/10 – Skirted around the edges of the contest.
LWB: Neco Williams – 6/10 – Bounding up and down the left flank, bouncing off the turf as he launched his slight frame into every tackle.
ST: Gareth Bale – 4/10 – Spluttered on the fringes of the match.
ST: Kieffer Moore – 7/10 – A cultured battering ram, adept at not only bringing the ball out of the lunchtime Qatari sun but invariably picking out a teammate.
SUB: Brennan Johnson (58′ for Wilson) – 5/10 – Failed to make the desired impact from the bench.
SUB: Dan James (58′ for Roberts) – 5/10 – Huffed and puffed with little quality.
SUB: Joe Allen (78′ for Ampadu) – N/A
SUB: Danny Ward (87′ for Ramsey) – N/A
Manager: Rob Page – 4/10 – After an even first half Wales were far inferior following the restart. Page’s desperate switch to a 4-3-3 hampered more than helped.
GK: Hossein Hosseini – 7/10 – In the right place at just the right time to block Moore’s close-range effort in the first half and deny Davies in the closing stages. Commanding in the air as well.
RB: Ramin Rezaeian – 8/10 – A dynamic presence ploughing up and down the touchline right until the final whistle.
CB: Majid Hosseini – 7/10 – Forceful in every action he firmly committed to.
CB: Morteza Pouraliganji – 7/10 – Manouevered himself between a red shirt and the ball on numerous occasions. Utterly interested in what he did once possession was won back.
LB: Milad Mohammadi – 7/10 – Muzzled Roberts’ raids down the right.
RM: Ali Gholizadeh – 6/10 – Overeagerness got the better of him on a rare entry into the Welsh penalty area. Unfortunate to see his curling effort clatter the woodwork.
CM: Ahmad Nourollahi – 6/10 – Solid in a steady midfield display.
CM: Saeid Ezatolahi – 6/10 – Sweeping up in front of his backline, Ezatolahi’s first thought protecting Iran’s rearguard.
LM: Ehsan Haji Safi – 7/10 – Iran’s captain helped shore up Iran’s rigid and remorseless left flank.
ST: Sardar Azmoun – 7/10 – The author of some silky flourishes when he could hold off a clear calf injury.
ST: Mehdi Taremi – 5/10 – Diligently tracked back onto the left side of midfield when Iran shuffled into a robust shape off the ball.
SUB: Karim Ansarifard (68′ for Azmoun) – 5/10
SUB: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (77′ for Gholizadeh) – N/A
SUB: Mehdi Torabi (77′ for Safi) – N/A
SUB: Roozbeh Cheshmi (78′ for Nourollahi) – N/A
Manager: Carlos Queiroz – 7/10 – Set his side up to frustrate before springing forward on the break, mere millimetres denied his side on more than one occasion.