Making the Most of the Occasion – Whoever is Watching

Turkey 2-1 Iran

With World Cup 2018 on the horizon, this was a salutary lesson for Iran.

In Carlos Quieroz they have one of the best coaches in the game and he has led them to back-to-back World Cups.

But his players won’t need him to remind them that a failure to take chances at this level can often lead to an early flight home.

Betting odds don’t favour the Asians in Russia. Indeed, the favoured sports betting price being offered is for them to gain a solitary point in a tough Group B – comprising European champions Portugal, Spain and Morocco – @ 3.10.

If they are to make their mark their opening encounter against Morocco is key and they will need to make the most of the opportunities which come their way, certainly be more clinical than they were against the Turks.

In their first match against each other since 1974, goals early in each half from Everton forward Cenk Tosun put Turkey in control and only when Nottingham Forest winger Ashkan Dejagah converted an injury-time penalty did they get on the scoresheet.

The spot-kick was awarded after defender Omer Bayram was dismissed for handling the ball on the goal line.

Tosun had scored his ninth and 10th international goals with a low sixth minute strike and neat 51st minute finish to continue to show the late season form which prompted recently departed Everton manager Sam Allardyce to part £27 million for his services in January.

Iran, who now play Austria and head to Russia for a pre-World Cup training camp and a friendly against Lithuania on June 8, are in a fifth World Cup but, to date, their only tournament success remains in France in 1998 when they saw off the USA.

It was described at the time as the ‘most politically charged game in the world’.

If that tally is to double, most hope will rest on the shoulders of Sardar Azmoun of Rubin Kazan, who has scored more international goals for this country (23 in 32 games) than any other player.

Currently placed 36th in the FIFA world rankings, they have been as high as 24th – the highest Asian nation –just one place above Turkey and six clear of June 15 opponents in the Krestovsky Stadium in St Petersburg, Morroco.

Quieroz will end his seven year stint in charge of the Iranian national team after the World Cup, despite being offered an extension to take the team through to next January’s Asian Cup Finals in the United Arab Emirates.

He has faith, however.

‘They fight for their lives, they fight for their history, they fight for their reputations,’ was a memorable quote from the highly rated coach after they qualified.

Now the question remains, can the country support them as they wish?

Since 1979, the country has barred Iranian woman from attending matches with officials insisting they must be protected from the ‘vulgar atmosphere’.

There may be a ban in Iran because of the Islamic Republic’s strict law –recently women dressed as men in defiance to watch a domestic match – but no such rule exists in Russia so Iran should have backing from men and women alike.

Will it be enough to help the team make an impression?

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O’Neill thrilled with Rice debut

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill was delighted with Declan Rice after the youngster claimed the man of the match award on his debut against Turkey.

O'Neill's side lost the friendly in Antalya 1-0, but the West Ham teenager impressed on his senior international bow.

Rice had been the subject of some advances from England boss Gareth Southgate recently, but the London-born 19-year-old was firm in his commitment to the Irish cause.

He admitted afterwards that he had a tear in his eye during the national anthem, with his father in the stand and memories of his grandparents in Cork in his mind.

His manager was suitably impressed with a composed display that belied his tender years.

"He's played left-sided centre-half for West Ham, his club, and at this minute I think he's getting accustomed to a number of positions," said the Ireland boss.

"I had no hesitation in putting him into the middle of the field. It was a man-of-the-match performance and I thought he was excellent for us.

"Considering it's his debut and he's 19 years of age, it was an impressive performance from an impressive young man."

Skipper Seamus Coleman was back on the pitch in an Irish shirt for the first time since a horrific leg-break in a World Cup qualifier against Wales in Dublin more than a year ago and the Everton stalwart was also keen to highlight Rice's performance.

"We're disappointed to have lost but I thought Declan was brilliant," said Coleman.

"He wasn't just brilliant today, he's been brilliant all week in training.

"He's a great lad, desperate to do well and a few of us could have taken a leaf out of his book today."

West Ham are 9/5 to beat Southampton next weekend at the London Stadium. The struggling Saints are 6/4 while the draw is 11/5.

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Hallgrimsson hails Iceland success

Iceland head coach Heimir Hallgrimsson was a happy man after seeing his side continue their rise by qualifying for the World Cup finals next summer.

A 2-0 victory at home to Kosovo was enough to secure top spot in qualifying Group I, as the Euro 2016 quarter-finalists saw off the challenges of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey to seal automatic qualification for Russia.

And Hallgrimsson hailed the efforts of his players, who he was worried would find it difficult to build on their success just over a year ago.

He told reporters: "The first beer after a party is not the best. The hardest thing was to get going again after our massive party in France.

"And what's more we are in a group contested between Croatia, Turkey, Ukraine and Finland, who are much better than their position in the group would have you believe.

"The success is not an end in itself, but a long journey towards a final destination."

Hallgrimsson also admitted that qualifying was made all the sweeter for having finished ahead of Croatia, who defeated Iceland in a World Cup qualifying play-off in 2014.

He added: "After we lost against Croatia we aimed at qualifying next time.

"In my opinion we were in the most difficult group, but we decided that we were just going to finish this. We had no interest in some sort of play-off bother."

Iceland are now available at 150/1 to win the World Cup next summer, while they are priced at 150/1 to triumph at Euro 2020.

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