Iran fight hard, but controversial draw not good enough

Iran’s players lay on the turf of the Mordovia Arena, exhausted and devastated. Through three group games they had fought desperately to escape a tough group. Now, after a pulsating, drama-filled encounter with European champions Portugal, they had failed. The final score was 1-1 in a game filled with flashes of brilliance, plenty of controversy and a number of moments that will stick in the memory. That didn’t matter for Iran. They gave their all, and they still fell agonisingly short of the last 16. Had Mehdi Taremi, one-on-one with Portuguese goalkeeper Rui Patrício deep into injury time, managed to put his shot on target instead of hitting it into the side netting, Iran would have almost certainly come away with a famous victory. He didn’t, Iran didn’t, and Portugal barely progressed from a group they were expected to cruise through.

There wasn’t too much in the way of first half excitement, as Iran replicated their defensive approach from earlier matches. Led by Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored all of Portugal’s goals in their first two matches, Portugal tried to find a way to break through the Iranian defence, but their opponents held firm and even presented a danger on the counter-attack. Early on, Portugal’s best chances were coming courtesy of Iran’s goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand, not their talismanic striker. João Mário had a chance to shoot at an open net when Beiranvand collided with teammate Saeid Ezatolahi, but he blasted his effort over the bar. Then came the bizarre scenes of Beiranvand remonstrating with his defender, with the pair nearly coming to blows. Similar issues arose for Iran in the minutes that followed, with Ricardo Quaresma testing out Beiranvand and twice drawing errors with crosses close to goal. The Iranian keeper missed one completely and let the next slip through his grasp, and after his brilliant form in Iran’s opening games the nerves seemed to be getting to him. Ronaldo, on the other hand, had been quiet, his impact limited to one shot straight at Beiranvand and a free-kick blasted straight into the wall.

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Alireza Beiranvand (in blue) saves Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty early in the second half. The save was the highlight of Beiranvand’s tournament, and it kept Iran in the game.

As the first half progressed, Beiranvand’s work became increasingly secure and Portugal’s chances began to dry up. Ronaldo was being held very effectively, and Iran looked more dangerous than the Portuguese when they found space on the break. The combination of Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Sardar Azmoun was creating problems, and Ezatolahi forced Patrício into action when he found space to head the ball goalward from a well-worked free-kick routine. Ronaldo had a chance when, seemingly out of frustration, he dropped deep into midfield and tried a shot from an impossible distance. It was on target, but Beiranvand gathered comfortably. It looked like the deadlock would remain firmly unbroken when the half time whistle blew.

Enter Quaresma. The veteran hadn’t started Portugal’s first two games, but he had an impact when inserted into the team at the expense of the talented but misfiring Bernardo Silva. Now, with Portugal needing some kind of spark to break down a very disciplined Iranian defence, it was the winger, not Ronaldo, who provided it. He played a neat one-two with Adrien Silva, struck the ball from just outside the area and curled it into the back of the net. With the outside of his right boot. It was an incredibly difficult shot made to look ridiculously easy, and it gave Portugal a crucial lead heading into half time.

Then the big moment came. Ronaldo, having been quiet, drew a foul from Ezatolahi just inside the penalty area. The penalty was initially waved away by Enrique Cáceres, but the video assistant referee stepped in and the penalty was soon given. It wasn’t the VAR’s last involvement of the evening. As Ronaldo stepped up to take the penalty, Iran were mentally preparing to go two goals down. He may have been out of sorts, but Ronaldo just doesn’t miss penalties in big moments. On the sideline, Iranian coach Carlos Queiroz (a former coach of Portugal) had already given up, throwing away his jacket in disgust and storming away from the dugout and into the rooms. Then Beiranvand, earlier looking like the weakest link, stood up. He saved the penalty, flinging himself the right way and giving Iran hope. Queiroz, presumably informed of his keeper’s feat, shamelessly returned to the bench as though nothing had happened.

Iran began to push more aggressively after Beiranvand’s moment of heroism, and the game started to descend into chaos. Players were throwing themselves to the turf left right and centre, and Quaresma found himself in Cáceres’ book when he dispensed vigilante justice on Ezatolahi for what he saw as an unpunished trip. Azmoun went down in the box, and Queiroz’s vehement appeals for VAR involvement were cut short when Cáceres moved towards the touchline. The Paraguayan referee wasn’t interested in checking for a foul, instead worrying himself with silencing Queiroz’s steady stream of protests. The Iranian coach wasn’t banished from the sideline, but he wasn’t far off it either. Then, shortly afterwards, another VAR review threatened to derail Portugal’s tournament. It concerned Ronaldo, and a clash with Morteza Pouraliganji.

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Cristiano Ronaldo (left) is shown a yellow card after a lengthy VAR review. Ronaldo, and Portugal, were slightly lucky the referee didn’t see fit to give him a red card for his challenge on Morteza Pouraliganji.

Blocked by his opponent, and presumably frustrated with the way things had gone for him, the Portuguese captain decided to push his way past forcefully. He also made slight contact with Pouraliganji’s chin, and the Iranian defender was more than willing to take advantage of the unnecessary blow. He crashed to the deck like a sack of potatoes, and Ronaldo’s slight but completely uncalled for action was suddenly under intense scrutiny from the omnipresent VAR officials. As all eyes turned to Cáceres, now rewatching the incident for himself, it was incredible just how much drama could be imbued in the moment of one man staring at a tiny screen. Concern was writ large upon Ronaldo’s face as Cáceres marched towards him to deliver his verdict. It was yellow, and all of Portugal breathed a gigantic sigh of relief.

Then they nearly got knocked out anyway, partly thanks to a bizarrely awarded penalty. Azmoun jumped for a ball into the box, and his header caught Cédric’s hand on the way through. It was an innocuous enough touch, unavoidable and clearly not deliberate. The VAR thought otherwise. After a lengthy deliberation, and another dramatic moment as Cáceres peered at the little screen, the penalty was awarded. Portugal couldn’t believe it, and were suddenly placed under immense pressure as Karim Ansarifard blasted an unstoppable penalty just under the bar. It was an incredibly difficult shot to pull off, but Ansarifard executed it perfectly, not feeling the pressure of the importance of his kick and paying no attention to how little time remained on the clock. It was, above all, a gutsy kick, and it was a perfect representation of Iran’s incredibly gutsy World Cup effort.

Saransk – Mordovia Arena
Iran 1 (Ansarifard 90+3)
Portugal 1 (Quaresma 45)
Referee: Enrique Cáceres (Par)
Iran (4-5-1): Beiranvand – Rezaeian, Hosseini, Pouraliganji, Hajsafi (Mohammadi 56); Taremi, Jahanbakhsh (Ghoddos 70), Ezatolahi (Ansarifard 76), Ebrahimi, Amiri; Azmoun.
Portugal (4-4-2): Rui Patrício – Cédric, Pepe, Fonte, Guerreiro; Quaresma (Bernardo Silva 69), Adrien Silva, William Carvalho, João Mário (João Moutinho 84); André Silva (Guedes 90+6), Ronaldo.

Top 5
1. Alireza Beiranvand (Iran)
Beiranvand capped off an extraordinary World Cup with a brilliant final game, saving a penalty from Ronaldo and continually frustrating the Portuguese with his solidity in goal. He started shakily but was a rock once he got going, and his massive throws forward when he collected the ball had to be seen to be believed.
2. Pepe (Portugal)
Pepe came in for criticism after a blatant dive in Portugal’s game against Morocco, and he reacted with a brilliant defensive performance. He was always there as Iran desperately tried to break through the Portuguese defence, and he made seemed to be the guy charged with clearing most of Iran’s dangerous forays forward.
3. Ricardo Quaresma (Portugal)
Quaresma gave Iran plenty of problems with his work on the right wing, starting the game by testing Beiranvand with some dangerous crosses before evolving into a more central role cutting in from the sideline. He gave Portugal the breakthrough with an effortless shot from just outside the box, and provided the spark they needed to get a result despite Ronaldo’s off-game.
4. Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Iran)
Jahanbakhsh always looked dangerous on the break, using his pace and skill to good effect. He always tracked back to do his defensive duties, and his counter-attacking combination with Azmoun created plenty of difficulties for Portugal as they looked to get past the solid Iranian defence.
5. Omid Ebrahimi (Iran)
Ebrahimi put in a huge effort all game, working hard in defence and attack and making an impact all over the field. His tireless efforts in midfield were instrumental in Iran’s defensive solidity, and he provided the consistent presence Iran needed to make an impact going forward.

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