17:00 BST, Tuesday 27th March, Merkur Arena (Graz, Austria)
After an impressive run in World Cup qualifying, Iran became only the second team after Tite’s Brazil to guarantee their place in summer’s tournament in Russia.
Of course, coming through the Asian Football Confederation’s Group A, Team Melli didn’t have the most stringent route to the World Cup. But remaining unbeaten in a group that included South Korea, their achievement should not be underplayed.
Ably coached by Carlos Queiroz, the Iranians go into a World Cup group that includes Morocco, Portugal and Spain. The Algeria game, then, will offer them a good test of how they will fare against fellow North African side, Morocco.
As for quality, though, Algeria disappointed in their CAF qualifying group, finishing bottom of Group C, nine points off Nigeria in first place.
This disappointment is only made worse by the fact that the Fennecs were one of two African teams to reach the knock-out stage in 2014, taking eventual champions Germany to extra-time before losing in the second round.
With Lucas Alcaraz being replaced by national hero Rabah Madjer in November of last year, Algeria have gone unbeaten in the three matches since. Tuesday’s game, therefore, should give a good indication of how far the Greens have come.
Last Time Out
Tunisia 1-0 Iran (International friendly)
Running out 1-0 losers to Tunisia last week, Team Melli found their 11-match unbeaten streak brought to a rude ending.
Despite the loss, Iran will comfort themselves with the knowledge that, even in defeat, the only goal scored came from the boot of one of their own players.
When Whabi Khazri ghosted past the Iranian defence and fired the ball at Alireza Beiranvand’s goal, it looked for the world that he had done enough to win the game for Algeria.
However, an incredible save from Beiranvand rebounded tragically off Milad Mohammadi back into his own net.
Algeria 4-1 Tanzania (International friendly)
Although the scoreline looks comfortable, Algeria were held for 45 minutes by Tanzania, only going pulling away just before the halftime whistle blew.
When Baghdad Bounedjah applied a finish to Riyad Mahrez’s ball in the 12th minute, the game looked in danger of becoming a procession.
However, within ten minutes Shiza Kichuya had equalised, a goal which kept the teams in parity until just before halftime when Shomari Kapombe’s own goal pushed the home side ahead.
Second-half goals from Carl Medjani and Bounedjah put the game out of Tanzania’s reach and continued the upward trajectory of Rabah Madjer’s rejuvenated side.
In February, Nottingham Forest wing back Ashkan Dejagah underwent knee surgery and so is unavailable. In addition, Morteza Pouraliganji, Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun are also injured.
Three players who featured regularly for Iran during the World Cup qualifiers missed the game against Tunisia: Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Saeed Ezzatollahi and Seyed Jalal Hosseini. None were injured but were thought to have been omitted due to Queiroz’s hesitancy to fit them within his system.
Masoud Shojaei is expected to feature for Iran after a seven-month stint on the sidelines.
While Rabah Madjer has selected a strong squad for these international friendlies, goalkeeper Rais M’Bolhi, left back Faozi Ghoulam, and midfielders Rachid Ghezal and Sofiane Feghouli have missed out either through injury or non-selection.
Having picked up a knock in Leicester’s FA Cup match against Chelsea, Riyad Mahrez was a doubt going into these matches. However, he played all 90 minutes and so expect him to start.
Against Tanzania, Salim Boukhenchouche picked up an injury and so he should be replaced by Farid El Mellali.
Key Battle: Reza Ghoochannejhad (Iran) vs Riyad Mahrez (Algeria)
One of the most notable aspects of the Iranian squad is their lack of players in the top five European leagues. In fact, the only player they have from their wider squad who plays in Europe is Ashkan Dejagah, currently making his way back from surgery at Nottingham Forest.
Reza Ghoochannejhad, however, is an exception to this rule, plying his trade in the Eredivisie in the Netherlands where he has scored seven goals in the 27 appearances.
At the international level, teams with star quality often make the difference in fixtures. If Ghoochannejhad can do this on Tuesday, then Iran could come out victors.
Algeria, though, have a more stellar cast to choose from. With Schalke’s Nabil Bentaleb in their midfield, Algeria also have Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez pulling the strings in their midfield.
Despite having a season disrupted by transfer speculation, Mahrez is the sort of player who can pull the strings for Algeria in the inside forward position. The Iranian defence will do well to keep him quiet.
How good are Iran?
It’s an easy point to bring up with respect to teams in the Asian Football Confederation but it hasn’t been since 2002 that any teams from the region have progressed deep into the knockout stages. In fact, in 2014, none of the four teams made it past the group stages.
Much has been made of the fact that Carlos Queiroz’s side have been imperious in qualifying. However, in a group in which the only real test has been South Korea, it’s hard to know exactly how good they are.
Added to this, the fact that the Azidi Stadium often houses 100,000 devoted fans, the Iranians have a home advantage that clearly won’t translate onto the World Cup stage. The trip to the Merkur Stadium in Austria should be a good test for a game in a foreign (colder) continent.
Are Algeria back on track?
Rabah Madjer has turned Algeria around since he came into the national team set-up at the end of last calendar year. Wins against Nigeria, Central African Republic and Tanzania have followed, making Algeria look back to the level that people expect of them.
However, with the win against Nigeria only coming in CAF qualifying after the fates of both already sealed and the two following matches against weaker sides, it remains to be seen whether or not this revival is artificial or not.
With Iran wanting to return to winning ways after a loss to Tunisia, Algeria can expect a stern test in Austria which will give them a better understanding of the level they’ve reached.
Prediction: Iran 1-1 Algeria
Expect this game to be something of a tetchy affair as Iran will be desperate not to lose a second match in a row and Algeria will find their opponents far sterner opposition than they might expect.
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