2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™

14 June - 15 July

2018 FIFA World Cup™ 

The Iranian Messi raring to go

© AFP

For the Iranian faithful, it has been quite some years since Team Melli has enjoyed the services of a truly reliable goal-getter following the retirement of international leading scorer Ali Daei. It is a fact borne out by Iran's performances during Asia's qualifying final round for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, with Carlos Queiroz's side progressing as the lowest scorers among the continent's qualified quartet, with just eight goals from as many games. Their campaign at Brazil 2014 proved disappointing in that sense, too, with just one goal scored.

Now though, with the meteoric rise of Sardar Azmoun, the void left by the world's international goal-king is seemingly set to be filled. Seven goals from five matches is the impressive goal-scoring rate as the Rostov forward, who turned 21 in January, finished Asia's second qualifying round for Russia 2018 as the team's top-scorer. Notably, Azmoun completed his first international brace in their 6-0 rout of Guam, before striking twice as his side beat Oman 2-0 in the group concluder to progress.

Azmoun's free-scoring form has seen him hailed as a goal-king in the making. But while fans are hoping he will assume Daei's mantle, the lanky forward opted to downplay growing expectations.

"I will try (to be a great striker like Daei)," he told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. "But honestly speaking, I don't want to be occupied with goals like this. What I want is to help Iran and I am proud of scoring goals for my team. I am still young and I should concentrate on improving my skills."

*Queiroz trust *
Just a year back, few knew who Azmoun was when he became a surprise inclusion in Queiroz's 2015 AFC Asian Cup squad. Of course, those following Iran's game closely are aware what he is capable of after his exploits with Rubin Kazan, the Russian side he joined as a teenager in 2013. He was on target eight times across 32 appearances for Kazan in all competitions, including breaking his duck by scoring in a 3-0 UEFA Europa League win against Molde.

"The coach (Queiroz) gave me the call-up (to the last Asian Cup team)," he recalled. "He placed plenty of trust in me. But for me, it was no surprise. I had anticipated that he would call me up and he did."

It did not take Azmoun long to prove Queiroz right on the continental stage. After playing briefly as a substitute in Iran's opening win against Bahrain, he was handed a surprise start against Qatar. Azmoun did not let the chance slip, repaying the coach's faith by scoring the match-winning goal. He went on to open the scoring in the quarter-final clash against Iraq as the two sides were locked at 3-3 after regular and additional periods, only to see the opponents prevail with a penalty shoot-out victory. Despite the loss, Azmoun emerged as one of the tournament's biggest revelations, alongside the likes of Massimo Luongo and Omar Abdulrahman.

"I was enormously happy to play for the national team in such an important tournament," he continued, reflecting on his first major competition representing Iran. "For me, it was just like a dream come true. It provided me with confidence as well as motivation."

Messi or Ibrahimovic
Azmoun's club form has been similarly impressive. Since moving to play for Rostov on loan at the start of last year, he has dazzled spectators through his forward forays and goals. His fine displays have seen him among the most sought-after Asian youth stars, with rumours that he has attracted interest by the likes of Everton, Stoke City and even Barcelona. His growing popularity is such that he has been dubbed as "Iranian Messi" by fans and media alike.

Azmoun, though, thinks differently. "Zlatan Ibrahimovic is my idol player," he stated. “And Real Madrid is my favourite club.”

With an athletic 182cm frame, Azmoun boasts exceptional aerial ability, consummate control of the ball and is known for his bursts of acceleration, creativity and adept finishing. "Azmoun has all the qualities to be a top-class striker," remarked his former Rubin Kazan manager Rinat Bilyaletdinov.

With so many promises to live up to, Azmoun is all too aware what tasks are facing him. “Every player wants to show his best with the national team and I am no exception,” he said. “My chief goal is to help Iran (to the World Cup) and make our supporters happy. In order to achieve this, I must keep in mind that I have a lot of hard work ahead of me.”

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