Despite numerous 'technical' issues that significantly curtailed the team's preprations, Iran arrives at the AFC Asian Cup 2015, as the highest-ranked nation. With a quality coach at the helm and a strong showing at the World Cup last year, Team Melli won't have anything to fear Down Under but it remains to be seen how much of an effect off-field problems have had.
COACH: Carlos QUEIROZ (POR)
CAPTAIN: Javad NEKOUNAM (Osasuna/ESP)
NICKNAME: Team Melli
ASIAN CUP APPEARANCES: 12 (1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2007, 2011)
BEST FINISH: Champion (1968, 1972, 1976)
FIFA RANKING: 51
AFC RANKING: 1
HOW ITQUALIFIED: Finished top, comfortably, of Group B, winning five and drawing one of its six matches.
RECENT FORM: Almost a total lack of preparation with just the one serious match – a win against Korea Republic - in almost six months before an understrength side saw off Iraq 1-0 a week ago in Wollongong.
MAIN MAN: Javad NEKOUNAM (Osasuna/ESP)
At 34 Nekounam is well into the veteran stage of his career but he remains as influential as ever in a side that is trying to integrate younger players into its ranks.
His central midfield partnership with Andranik Teymourian – whether in a two or three man unit brings stability and a consistency of performance.
ONE TO WATCH: Alireza JAHANBAKHSH (NEC/HOL)
Dutch-based midfielder who is seemingly in a battle with Karim Ansarifard for a berth on the right side of the forward line, the 21 year-old is an exciting presence who is comfortable on the ball, a good passer and finisher.
Iran earned a range of plaudits for its performances at the World Cup in Brazil – particularly the effort in holding eventual runner-up Argentina at bay for so long and it shouldn't be forgotten that it actually carved out a few decent chances of its own in that match.
However, the problems that dogged the build-up then have returned again in the countdown to the Asian Cup.
There was a protracted wrangle over whether Carlos Queiroz would re-sign and when he eventually did – after a fan-backed movement – the next challenge was to try and get the preparation right.
To say it was a shambles is an understatement. Several training camps were cancelled, there was continued friction between the national team staff and several club sides and the continued inability to attract nations to Tehran for matches saw just the single match – a 1-0 win over Korea – played before the side arrived in Australia.
A fixture with Iraq was arranged where Queiroz opted to play his back-up players meaning the senior squad has had virtually no competitive action for half a year.
The coach has often – and publicly – criticized this build-up telling me last week: "Iran enter the Asian Cup as the top-ranked side in the standings but at the bottom in terms of the preparation," he said.
Despite the poor build-up he does have a collection of talented individuals to call on. Goalkeeper Alireza Hagihighi is one of the best at this tournament and the experienced central midfield pair of Andranik Teymourian and captain Javad Nekounam provide a calmness and control.
The attacking players though are the side's greatest strength – Masoud Shojaei has a wealth of experience in La Liga, and that's also where Karim Ansarifard plies his trade.
Reza Ghocchanneejhad is a sharp finisher and in 20-year-old Sardar Azmoun Iran has perhaps the best 'pure' striker it has had in years.
He, along with the highly touted Dutch-based winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh are likely to be used more as impact players so it shows just how deep the talent pool is.
Despite that you can't help but think the utter lack of preparation will hamper chances of success – particularly with two in-form sides in the UAE and Qatar to contend with.
Iran is my tip as the group stages' biggest casualty.
PREDICITION: GROUP STAGE
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP: 4-3-3
GOALKEEPERS: 1. Alireza HAGHIGHI (Penafiel/POR); 12. Mohsen FOROUZAN (Esteghlal); 22. Alireza BEIANVAND (Naft Tehran)
DEFENDERS: 2. Khosro HEYDARI (Esteghlal); 4. Jalal HOSSEINI (Al Ahli/QAT); 5. Amir Hossein SADEGHI; 8. Morteza POURALIGANJI (Naft Tehran); 11. Vouria GHAFOURI (Sepahan); 15. Ramin REZAIAN (Rah Ahan); 19. Mohammad Reza KHANZADEH (Persepolis); 23. Mehrdad POOLADI (Al Shahania/QAT)
MIDFIELDERS: Ehsan HAJSAFI (Sepahan); 6. Javad NEKOUNAM (Osasuna/ESP); 7. Masoud SHOJAEI (Al Shahania/QAT); 9. Omid EBRAHIMI (Esteghlal); 13. Vahid AMIRI (Naft Tehran); 14. Andranik TEYMOURIAN (Tractor Sazi); 17. Soroush RAFIEI (Foolad); 18. Alireza JAHANBAKHSH (NEC/NED); 21. Ashkan DEJAGAH (Al Arabi/QAT)
FORWARDS: 10. Karim ANSARIFARD (Osasuna/ESP); 16. Reza GHOOCHANNEJHAD (Kuwait SC/KUW); 20. Sardar AZMOUN (Rubin Kazan/RUS)
GROUP C FIXTURES:
Sunday 11 January 2015
Iran v Bahrain, Melbourne
Thursday 15 January 2015
Qatar v Iran, Sydney
Monday 19 January 2015
Iran v United Arab Emirates, Brisbane