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 By John Duerden

Iran's Sardar Azmoun has the potential to become better than Ali Daei

Sardar Azmoun is one of the top young players in the world.

Nobody has scored more international goals than Iran legend Ali Daei. Indeed, the image of the striker wheeling away in celebration is forever stuck in the memory of a generation of fans in Asia.

Daei, who deserves his global status, found the net an amazing 109 times in 149 games before his international retirement in 2006. It is a record that could last forever, though it could also be broken by a young compatriot.

Sardar Azmoun has some time to go before we can think about records, but the 21-year-old is doing pretty well with 14 goals in his first 17 games for Iran, eight more than Daei had by the same stage. It is not just that Azmoun could be as good as Daei, he could actually be better.

The elder statesman obviously had an eye for goal, impressive levels of consistency over a long career and a fierce desire to score, but Azmoun has plenty more in his locker and started his international career five years younger than his predecessor too.

Iran coach Carlos Queiroz has known that he has top talent for a while, giving the northerner his debut in 2014 and watching him become Team Melli's star striker. The former Real Madrid boss has worked with some of the best goal scorers in the world and has been careful not to give Azmoun too much praise. At times though he struggles to hide his excitement and pride.

"He has all the qualities to succeed at the highest level," Queiroz told ESPNFC back in 2015. "He is improving all the time. He has to keep his feet on the ground, work hard and make the right decisions. If so, he could be a real star of Iranian and Asian football for years to come."

The future seems to be coming faster than even Queiroz expected with Azmoun's form for club and country improving all the time. On Thursday, he scored all three in Iran's 3-1 win over Macedonia in Skopje.

The first was a poacher's goal, popping up at the far post unmarked to score from close range -- though keeping a bobbling ball down was harder than it looked. The second was a run onto a long ball, where he outmuscled a defender and struck the coolest of finishes from the edge of the area.

But the third was even better: a perfectly-timed diagonal run saw him through on goal and, with the whole defence expecting a dribble around the goalkeeper, he him hit a first time shot with the outside of the right foot. Quick of mind and feet: just look at his Dennis Bergkamp-esque turn and shot that won this 2015 Asian Cup clash with Qatar. It is little wonder than Queiroz has labelled him "world-class."

Such touch, control, pace and aerial ability help to make Azmoun the hottest striker in Asia at the moment. He has never played in the Iranian league, leaving the youth team of five-time champions Sepahan in 2012 for Rubin Kazan in Russia. In early 2015, he was loaned to Rostov -- which is where he started to find his feet, his form and the back of the net.

Nine goals this season in just 15 starts was an impressive return and it ended with the winning goal against Ural Yekaterinburg to secure a first appearance in the Champions League (and second place in the league) for Rostov.

Azmoun has already proven himself in Europe, and being away from the spotlight has helped him ease some of the pressure and expectations there would have been at home or in the continent's biggest leagues.

Now though, despite interest from Spartak Moscow, it may be time to head further west. There have been plenty of links with Europe's top clubs, though much of the paper talk has been fuelled by the fact he has been handed the nickname of "the Iranian Messi."

However, aside from playing nothing like the Argentinian, he would also like to play somewhere else too. "I'm a fan of Real Madrid," he said recently, "but I'm in love with English Premier League and it would be a dream for me to play in England's top division."

There is no doubt that he could handle it. Going to Russia at 18 is far from easy and his maturity on and off the pitch is there for all to see.

England may just be the right place and the fact that Iran are Asia's highest-ranked team (at 39) means that a work permit would be easier to attain even under rules that were tightened last year. Germany is another possibility especially as most of Iran's best seem to have ended up in the Bundesliga at some stage.

Daei went to Bayern Munich from Arminia Bielefeld in a blaze of publicity and found playing time hard to come by, even sitting on the bench in the 1999 Champions League final, before leaving after just one year. He wasn't an unqualified success at Hertha Berlin either and returned to Asia in 2002.

Azmoun can surely surpass Daei's domestic efforts but it would really be special if he could overtake his international record too. It seems strange to be talking about that in regards to a striker barely out of his teens but Rostov's young star may just have what it takes.

John Duerden covers Asian football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.

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