Iran ignored the distractions that have overshadowed the team since they landed in Qatar to get their World Cup campaign up and running as they rallied to beat sloppy Wales 2-0 on Friday, giving themselves a chance of reaching the knockout stage.
Iran were thrashed 6-2 by England in their Group B opener but those two goals against the table-toppers gave them the confidence that they could compete with European sides as they arrived at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium with a point to prove.
The Asian team has never got past the group stage at five previous World Cups but Carlos Queiroz’s players will now fancy their chances after an impressive display as they punished a Welsh side that was reduced to 10 men late in the second half.
“We played today with amazing character, which is the profile of our team. We played with a sense of unity, cohesion,” said Queiroz, who was thrown into the air by his players after the full-time whistle.
“Sometimes you lose your dignity, your honour, but of course in our first game we were bleeding in our pride. This was an opportunity to rebound… We played brilliantly and deserved to win.”
Even before the match had kicked off, the focus was firmly on the players as they sang the national anthem, having refrained from doing so in their opening game in apparent support for protesters back home.
But once the referee blew the whistle for kickoff, they were laser focused on the job at hand and immediately got stuck in, asking questions of Wales as both sides deployed different formations to set up an intriguing tactical battle.
Leading strikers Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi both ply their trade in Europe and Queiroz, who had opted for just one forward against England, paired them up front to keep the Welsh defence pegged back and on their toes throughout the game.
Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand missed the game after suffering a concussion and a broken nose against England and his replacement Seyed Hossein Hosseini was very much up to the task against Wales despite shipping six goals in the opener.
A cagey start saw Iran fire their first warning shot when they had a goal disallowed for offside but that was enough to sow doubts into the Wales camp while it gave Iran belief that Rob Page’s side was there for the taking.
After a goalless first half, it was barely minutes into the second period when Iran burst into life as Azmoun and Ali Gholizadeh hit the woodwork within seconds of each other while Saeid Ezatolahi also had an attempt saved.
That sowed panic in the Welsh side that was visibly tiring in the heat and it came to a head when goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey charged out of his box and took out Taremi with a high knee, as he received a red card for his troubles.
The sending off was the invitation Iran needed to burst forward with renewed vigour and, with nine minutes of stoppage time added on, they floored Wales with a deadly one-two punch to leave the Welsh fans in the stands in tears.
“We were ready mentally,” goalscorer Roozbeh Cheshmi said. “We had a lot of chances to score but eventually we were able to win and get three points, this was because of solidarity of the players that we were able to achieve this result.”
Wales manager Robert Page could only look on helplessly as his players failed to implement his plans, with Kieffer Moore and Gareth Bale barely seeing the ball while the experienced Aaron Ramsey failed to influence the game from midfield.
Page had decided to start Moore after his impressive second-half performance against the United States.
But it backfired as the physically imposing striker did not make an impact apart from an early shot on goal that was well saved by Hosseini at point-blank range, arguably Wales’ best chance of the game.
“I always take responsibility, that’s my team,” Page said.
“The sending off didn’t help, of course, but at that point we had five forwards on the pitch, so couldn’t get a defensive shape.”