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 Posted by Afshin Afshar
Jun 17, 2014

Resolute rearguard a positive for Iran

ESPN FC's Craig Burley speaks about the match between Nigeria and Iran.

Iran's opener against Nigeria was a boring affair to most, if not all, football purists.

On one side there was Nigeria, who lacked imagination and creativity in attack, and on the other was Team Melli, who took a tight defensive approach to the game and blended it with some occasional attempts at counterattack.

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Match 12
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In the end both teams were booed off the field by neutral -- and even some of their own -- fans in the stadium.

It is very true that Team Melli's approach to the match against their weakest opponent in the group was disappointing to many of their fans around the world. But more seasoned fans came away feeling good about a number of things.

First and foremost Team Melli came away with a point. This was the first time ever that Iran earned a point in their opening World Cup match.

In 1978 they were trashed by Netherlands 3-0; in 1998 they lost 1-0 to the former Yugoslavia; and in 2006 they were defeated 3-1 by Mexico.

This draw not only earned them a point, but it also marks the first time ever that Iran have kept a clean sheet in a World Cup finals match.

Team Melli fans who have followed the team more closely over the years would see this as a huge improvement over the previous versions of the team. It is very obvious that coach Carlos Queiroz has instilled self-belief in his squad, especially his defense.

The defenders did not nervously hoof the ball up the field. Instead, they tried -- and mostly succeeded in -- linking with a midfielder in the hope of building up from the back. Most notably, Amir Hossein Sadeghi successfully completed 94 percent of his passes in the game.

The fact that Iran lacks a creative midfield to make matters complicated in the opponent's half of the field is another issue for another day, but the intent of building from the back is an excellent sign of progress.

Neutrals may not have been impressed, but Iran can feel very encouraged by their opening performance.

Another positive was the very impressive physical fitness demonstrated by the entire team. This might sound strange to outsiders, but the more loyal Team Melli followers recall many occasions on which the team's lack of fitness cost them at the world stage.

For example, in Germany 2006 the team put on a good show against Mexico and Portugal, but only for about 60 to 65 minutes before fatigue set in and the team's performance dropped significantly.

Against Nigeria, six of the Team Melli starters covered distances more than 10 kilometers (one of the six, defender Khosro Heydari, covered over 11.5 km). Another three covered over 9 km and only Ashkan Dejagah -- who was substituted 80 minutes into the match -- failed to pass the 9 km mark. Players in the Iranian domestic league average far below these numbers.

Striker Reza Ghoochannejhad aside, the Team Melli players' heat maps show that they spent most of their time on their own side of the field and heavily focused on defending areas assigned to them. In contrast, the Nigerians' heat maps reveal that they roamed around the field more freely.

It is pretty safe to assume that we will see much of the same against Argentina on Saturday -- Iran will sit back and try to repel Argentina's attack, hoping for a few counterattacking or dead-ball opportunities that might come their way.

Most experts forecast an Argentina victory against Iran and Nigeria. So depending on the result of the Nigeria vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina game, Team Melli's final group match with the Bosnians on June 25 in Salvador, Brazil, could very well be the match that will decide the winner of the second spot in the group.

If that is the case, Queiroz might decide to accept more risk and open up the game a bit more in order to give Team Melli fans something more to cheer for in this World Cup.

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