Goal machine Taremi ready to lead Iran's World Cup push
Iran striker Mehdi Taremi's four years in Portuguese football have turned unquestioned potential into one of the most potent weapons at the disposal of national team coach Carlos Queiroz.
Since featuring for Team Melli at the last World Cup -- and missing a late opportunity against Portugal to take Iran into the knockout rounds for the first time -- the 30-year-old from Bushehr has turned into a scoring machine.
Taremi established himself as one of the most talked about players in Iran before Russia 2018 but until then he eschewed advances to move to Europe to stay much closer to home.
In 2016 he signed a contract with Turkish side Caykur Rizespor before deciding to stay with Tehran-based Persepolis, a decision that was to cost him four months of his career in 2017 when he was banned by FIFA for breaching that agreement.
It was to prove a brief setback for Taremi, who had signed an 18-month contract with Qatar's Al Gharafah ahead of the last World Cup but before long was on his way west, joining Rio Ave in the Portuguese league.
He made an immediate impact, scoring 18 times in 30 league games to secure a move to Porto in the close season of 2020. Taremi has not looked back since.
The goals have flowed as the striker helped his team to the Portuguese league and cup double last season, with Taremi also impressive in the Champions League.
He scored the competition's goal of the season in 2021 with a spectacular overhead kick in a 2-1 quarter-final loss against Chelsea and his performances prompted speculation that a move to the Premier League is imminent.
The road for Iran was slightly less smooth, even if Taremi was scoring regularly under former coach Dragan Skocic.
A fall-out with the Croatian saw him dropped for World Cup qualifiers against Lebanon and Syria last year before the pair patched up their differences and Taremi returned to the squad.
The rehiring of Carlos Queiroz in September means the risk of Taremi not being selected for Qatar -- fitness permitting -- has disappeared such is the bond between the pair.
Taremi, whose brother Mohammad played professionally, can lead the line alone or partner Sardar Azmoun, should the Bayer Leverkusen striker shake off an injury before the World Cup.
Carlos Queiroz's return as Iran coach threatened to throw the country's preparations for a third straight World Cup appearance into turmoil but instead the re-hiring of the Portuguese has galvanised an ageing squad for one last crack at history.
In five previous World Cup campaigns, Iran have never progressed beyond the group phase but after being drawn in a group alongside England, Wales and the United States hopes are growing that their disappointing record might be broken.
Queiroz reclaimed the position at the helm in mid-September, replacing Dragan Skocic after qualification was assured with the Croatian ousted as a result of the fall-out from an acrimonious Iran Football Federation presidential election.
The former Real Madrid and Portugal coach is looking to reignite a relationship he fostered with the squad during his previous eight-year stint and the signs are clear from the beginning that little has changed for the 69-year-old coach.
For their September friendlies against Uruguay and Senegal, Queiroz picked 16 of the 23-man squad he selected for the finals in Russia in 2018, when Iran recorded their best-ever result at a World Cup with four points from three games.
That saw Team Melli narrowly miss out on a place in the knockout rounds, and Queiroz and company will be determined to go one step further in Qatar.
Off-field matters, however, could cause significant distraction for the Iranians.
The meetings with England and the United States will be politically charged domestically while protests over women's rights in Iran have had a psychological impact on a squad that was fractured by the controversy over Queiroz's re-hiring.
The performances against Uruguay and Senegal in September carried all the hallmarks of a Queiroz coached side, however, with defensive discipline and a ruthlessness on the counterattack of utmost importance.
IRAN AT THE WORLD CUP
Following is a statbox on Iran at the World Cup.
FIFA Ranking: 20
Iran have reached their third World Cup in a row but have yet to move beyond the group phase. They first qualified in 1978 and also featured in 1998 and 2006 before appearing in 2014 and 2018. Four years ago in Russia was their best performance, when a win over Morocco and a draw with Portugal saw them narrowly miss out on a place in the knockout rounds.
How they qualified:
Iran dominated Group A of Asia's final round of preliminaries, topping their group by two points ahead of South Korea. Led by Dragan Skocic, Team Melli lost just once, a 2-0 defeat by the Koreans when qualification was already secured.
Carlos Queiroz was reappointed head coach in September as a replacement for Skocic and since the return of the Portuguese the Iranians have notched up a 1-0 win over Uruguay and a 1-1 draw with Senegal during a training camp in Austria.