Iran's vice-captain Ashkan Dejagah has joined his national coach Carlos Queiroz in talking up Qatar’s chances of booking a direct berth in the 2018 FIFA World Cup™, and complimented the 2022 hosts on their recent progress.
Iran and Qatar will face off in their opening Group A third round qualifiers in Tehran’s iconic Azadi Stadium on 1 September.
Al Arabi midfielder Dejagah, who is one of the very few current Asian internationals with a top European league title under his belt, told sc.qa that Al Annabi have improved enormously and can challenge his team for a spot at Russia 2018.
“Qatar's national team have improved so much over the last four years since we played them in the 2014 qualifiers. They now pose a threat to all other Asian sides. They have a number of good players almost all of who play in the Qatar Stars League. Football in Qatar is more competitive and a lot different now,” said the 2008/09 Bundesliga winner.
In April, when the third round draw was made, Queiroz had tipped opposite number Jose Carreno’s side along with continental heavyweights Korea Republic as the main Group A challengers blocking Iran’s progress to their second successive FIFA World Cup.
Dejagah, who plied his trade in the English Premier League for two seasons with Fulham before joining Al Arabi in 2014, gave further credence to his coach’s analysis. He added: “Qatar have the ability to qualify for Russia. Korea Republic are the frontrunners. China can be a tough side at their home. Uzbekistan can be tricky. So there will not be any easy matches for us in the group.”
The latest edition will add to Dejagah’s indelible memories of previous Iran-Qatar contests. Iran’s best ever left-winger, who usually plays on the right for Al Arabi, made his international debut in February 2012 at the Azadi Stadium against Qatar in a third round qualifier for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ which ended in a 2-2 draw.
“Though we could not win, it was a memorable occasion for me as I scored both our goals in my first international game,” continued Dejagah. “It will be a great feeling to face Qatar again in front of our home crowd.”
Four months after his debut, Qatar again came calling to the iconic Azadi, this time for a fourth round qualifier for Brazil 2014. Team Melli were held to a goalless draw in front of 100,000 people with Dejagah coming on as a second half substitute.
“I have put that game to the back of my mind,” he said. “I am now focusing on the 2018 qualifier. Qatar are a tough team and will give us a fight again. However, this time they will also be under pressure as they will be looking at three points. We are confident we can do our best to make our people happy.”
Standing in the way of that mission are a few familiar faces, none more so than Dejagah’s Al Arabi team-mate and fellow winger Boualem Khoukhi, who has found the net four times for Qatar during their second round qualifying campaign.
“I know Boualem well as a person,” said Dejagah. “We have been teasing each other about this game from the time the draw was made and I am glad I will be facing him. I wish him the best. He is a great talent, a very clever player. I will update my coach and team-mates about his strengths, especially the danger he poses from set-pieces and free-kicks.”
Dejagah will hope that Khoukhi and his other Qatari friends will turn well-wishers should Iran qualify for the first ever World Cup in the region. “I have been talking to a lot of friends here about the 2022 World Cup preparations,” he continued.
“It is too early to talk about my involvement as a player. I am now focusing on the 2018 World Cup. Once that is over, I will try to do my best during the 2022 qualifiers so that my nation can qualify and I can be part of a historic tournament in a country where I have many friends."