Ivankovic ready to go
There is no doubt that Iran are the underdogs ahead of the opening match of their third FIFA World Cup finals against Mexico on Sunday.
Confidence, however, has justifiably been drawn from a series of positive performances and results in recent warms-up matches, most notably a 5-2 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina and 2-2 draw with a team, in Croatia, who claimed the bronze the last time the FIFA World Cup was held in Europe.
Even more encouraging, arguably, is that the timely return from injury of midfield maestro Mehdi Mahdavikia along with fellow key players Ali Karimi and Vahid Hashemian has provided Branko Ivankovic with a couple of pleasant selection headaches ahead of facing a side placed fourth in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings.
Iran's Croatian coach, for his part, made it clear in an exclusive interview with FIFAworldcup.com that his side are targetting nothing less than a place in the last 16.
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FIFAworldcup.com: With Iran undefeated in all three friendlies played this year, do you think you have prepared the team well enough for the opening game against Mexico in Nuremberg?
Branko Ivankovic : Yes, everything is going in the right direction in our camp. We played good warms-up games and I am especially satisfied that the players did rather well against Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. We showed our strength in the 2-2 draw against Croatia and should remember they are strong European powers that reached the semi-finals in France 1998. We also came from two goals down to defeat Bosnia-Herzegovina 5-2. Although I wasn't happy that we conceded two quick goals in the opening minutes, I was glad to see our young players put in some brilliant performances and it was good for them to gain more international experience going into the World Cup.
Which young talents on the team have impressed you so far?
Andranik Teymourian, Mehrzad Madanchi and Masoud Shojaei all look good at shoring up the midfield and Kaabi keeps up his good form in the back. Up front, Arash Borhani shows huge predatory potential, while Rasoul Kahtibi also has the capabilities to score good goals.
So could Borhani or Kahtibi may start in place of Ali Daei?
Ali Daei is the team's captain and he should start, at least in the opening game against Mexico. But it is hard to predict if we make any changes up front in the next games against Portugal and Angola because no-one knows what will happen to the team and players.
If Ali Daei does have any problems, who is your most favoured replacement for him?
We do not have a shortage of options in the front line. Vahid Hashemian can provide firepower, and Borhani and Kahhibi are also able to do the job well.
Karimi, Mahdavikia and Hashemian have all been struggling a little with injuries and some of them didn't play the recent friendlies. Have they all fully recovered?
Hashemian has no problems and Mahdavikia has also been back in our training recently. Karimi had a three-month lay-off this season due to injury, but he played in the match against Croatia and scored one of our goals.
If we compare the warm-up matches Iran played to those Korea Republic, Japan and Saudi Arabia took on, could it be said that the team arrives in Germany without enough top-class international exposure?
We had some problems arranging more international friendlies and we could only do that after our training camp started on 10 May. But the importance is the quality, not the quantity, of matches. We played strong European teams, the young players learnt a lot from their mistakes, and the good performances and results are a timely boost to the team's morale. You can see some other teams didn't play too many friendlies either. Portugal played two, while Brazil played only one.
Despite the good results, Iran conceded six goals in the their three most meaningful friendlies against Costa Rica, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Is the defence still the area in need of most improvement?
A good defence is crucially important for a team to win games. We have done a lot in improving our defence and I can see the team are getting better in this area.
This will be your second FIFA World Cup after you were on the coaching staff that guided Croatia to third place in France 1998. And you are also the first foreign coach to lead Iran in a FIFA World Cup finals. What goals have you set for you and your team?
Our first goal was qualification for the FIFA World Cup, which we have already achieved. Now we are aiming at progressing to the second round. The opening match against Mexico is important, and although they are a world-class power, we have the chance to pull off some good results. Plus, you always know in football that nothing is impossible.