Iran’s status as Group E favourites will be put to the test by Gulf sides Bahrain and Qatar, who have both recorded victories over them in past FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers. As for the latter two, the results of their own head-to-head fixtures could well decide which of them will go through to the final round.
Nor can anyone ignore the threat posed by Indonesia, whose fervent home support in Jakarta gives them every chance of taking vital points off their more fancied opponents. With home points certain to be key and a tight race a strong possibility, all the ingredients are in place for an enthralling section.
For all that, Iran are clear favourites to top the group. The Asian giants have plenty of experience in FIFA World Cup qualifiers and have made it through to the tournament finals on three previous occasions, at Argentina 1978, France 1998 and Germany 2006. Not only can the national side draw on a host of players from the Zob Ahan side that has enjoyed recent success in the AFC Champions League, they have a hugely experienced captain in Ali Karimi and the Spanish league pair of Javad Nekounam and Masoud Shojaei. Moreover, the recent appointment of Carlos Queiroz as coach brings a wealth of experience to the helm, the Portuguese having previously worked on the technical staff at Manchester United and Real Madrid as well as coaching Portugal at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa.
Qatar, for their part, would appear to be on the right track, having impressed at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup on home soil following extensive preparation. They boast a highly talented and technically proficient team, including the likes of Sebastian Soria, Yousef Ahmad Ali and Ibrahim Khalfan, who were instrumental in an Asian Cup run that was only halted by an outstanding Japan side in the quarter-finals.
Bahrain: They enter the qualifiers amid sweeping changes to the team’s set-up. After failing to come through their play-offs for the last two FIFA World Cup finals (against Trinidad and Tobago in 2006 and New Zealand in 2010) the tiny Gulf state gradually dropped down the rankings, culminating in a group-stage exit at the 2011 Asian Cup that led to widespread demands for a shake-up. With a new coach now at the helm in Englishman Peter Taylor, Bahrain’s fans will be hoping their new strategist can quickly get the best out of his new charges and get the measure of upcoming opponents.
Indonesia: Due to their lack of experience at this level, they will be looking to their home crowds for the kind of support they provided during the finals of the 2007 Asian Cup. The team will be aiming to grab every point that comes their way and make up for any shortcomings with their famous fighting spirit.
Players to watch
Ali Karimi, Javad Nekounam (IRN), Sebastian Soria, Yousef Ahmad Ali (QAT), Mohamed Salmeen, Fawzi Aish (BHR), Bambang Pamungkas (IDN)
The crunch match
The Iran-Qatar clash is likely to be crucial in determining who will top Group E, as both sides have what it takes to win the section. With two world-class coaches at the helm, it will be fascinating to see who comes out winners of this much-anticipated contest.
A look back
Bahrain 3-1 Iran, 21 October 2001, Manama
In their final group game, a confident Iran were just a win away from securing a berth at the finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan. Bahrain, under no pressure at all, registered a shock 3-1 victory courtesy of strikes from Abdullah Al Marzouqi, Hussein Ali and Mohamed Hussein to deny their opponents the win and leave them two points adrift of Saudi Arabia, who went on to defeat Thailand and qualify top of the group.
12 – The number of times Iran and Qatar have played each other, their first encounter coming at the 1988 AFC Asian Cup in Doha. Iran have won seven of these encounters and Qatar two, while three have ended in a draw.
Did you know?
Iran have lost just twice at home in previous FIFA World Cup preliminary competitions going down 1-0 to Jordan during qualifying for Germany 2006, before throwing away a 1-0 lead to lose against nemesis Saudi Arabia at the Azadi Stadium on the road to South Africa 2010.
Have your say
Does the current Bahrain outfit have what it takes to repeat their achievement from Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010 and make it into the final round of the qualifiers?