It is safe to say that the crowd at this past Monday's Iran-Nigeria game at the Arena da Baixada in Curitiba were not exactly bowled over by the spectacle. After all, the match yielded the sole goalless draw of the first round of 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ group-stage action.
There is no doubt Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi was busier than his Nigerian opposite number, Vincent Enyeama, but the rest of Team Melli looked supremely drilled tactically. Up top, Reza Ghoochannejhad worked tirelessly and, despite failing to hit the net, scored 7.53 in the Castrol Index, outperforming several bigger – though not longer! – names including a certain Lionel Messi.
The 26-year-old voiced his delight at the point gained in an interview with FIFA: "It was a tough match. We knew they were a physically strong team, but that didn't stop us putting in a good performance. We pressed them constantly and our tactics nullified their game."
Coach Carlos Queiroz was unstinting in his praise for the marksman, whom he personally convinced to represent Iran rather than the Netherlands, where the hotshot played at youth level. "He put in an excellent shift.
"We were focused on keeping it tight defensively against an extremely physical Nigeria side and, despite the fact that he frequently found himself isolated up front, he still managed to press the opposition. I was impressed by his performance and I hope my players give him more support against Argentina," the Portuguese coach added.
The Charlton forward is adamant that the AFC side are out to build on their solid start to reach the Round of 16 for the first time in four appearances at the finals: "The point will give us confidence and mentally speaking the team have never been stronger. We dropped [two] points but we did what we set out to, which is gratifying. We're physically and mentally ready to take on Argentina and I'm hoping to score against them."
Free from pressure
Ghoochannejhad's bullishness should not be mistaken for cockiness: he simply believes that all the pressure is on the two-time world champions and their talisman, Lionel Messi. The Iranians, meanwhile, will be unencumbered by expectations, and any sort of positive result will be a bonus ahead of their final group fixture against Bosnia and Herzegovina.
"We have to enjoy it and follow the coach's instructions to the letter. We've got absolutely nothing to lose in this match," stressed the man who enabled Iran to qualify top of their group with his winner against Korea Republic. "Argentina are among the favorites this year, while the same can't be said for us. All the pressure will be on their shoulders and we will have to show our resilience, like against Nigeria," he went on.
Even if Team Melli are defeated by La Albiceleste, they will still have a chance of making it through the group going into their meeting with the Bosnians, whom they have beaten in four of five friendly encounters. Despite this auspicious statistic, Ghoochannejhad is refusing to count Iran's chickens before they have hatched: "This is the World Cup and that's no way to approach things; [right now] the most important match is the Argentina game. We have to try to get a good result before we can talk about qualification."
As he has made abundantly clear, the man nicknamed 'Gucci' isn't looking past Messi and Co and is aiming to mark the game in style: by putting the ball past Sergio Romero to open his World Cup account.
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