Iran claimed a historic win over Morocco at Zenit Saint Petersburg’s Krestovsky Stadium in Group B’s opening World Cup fixture on Friday.
These two nations had only played each other twice before this match, with Iran winning the first in 1978 and then drawing when they met again in 2002.
Africa’s Atlas Lions exerted the early pressure, looking to dictate the pace and impose their will from the word go. With the group’s European powerhouses – Spain and Portugal – due to play later on, there was need for one of these teams to grab the advantage in this particular match as it was expected that the upcoming two would be significantly more difficult.
A frantic scramble in the Iran box in minute 18 looked certain to produce a goal, but the Middle Eastern side somehow survived even after the ball fell to Medhi Benatia, who had his close-range strike saved by Alireza Beiranvand.
Herve Renard’s side kept up their dominance in the first period, yet the Iranians managed to scare them on the counter a few times.
Ever susceptible to Iran’s counterattacking, the Moroccan side would suddenly find themselves pulled apart by a quick break that left attacking sensation Sardar Azmoun one-on-one with their keeper in the 43rd minute. The Rubin Kazan forward bore down on goal with pace but his shot was parried away by Munir Mohamedi.
The rebound fell to another Iranian, but he could not get his boot to it cleanly and was made to watch Munir tip it away for a corner.
The halftime whistle blew a few moments later, leaving the sides to head into the break at 0-0, despite both each having a great opportunity to find the back of the net.
The sides returned for the second half unchanged and Morocco seemed a bit more patient, likely instructed to remain wary of Iran’s counterattacking threat.
Up until the 80th minute, the first half had been more entertaining than the first, with both sides surprisingly playing it safe, despite the importance an opening-day win would hold.
Morocco turned things up with 10 minutes left in regulation, however, as the Iranian stopper would be forced to get down and palm away a stinging shot from Ajax attacker Hakim Ziyech from outside of the box.
The closing minutes saw both sides go for the elusive goal that would hand them a marked advantage in the group. But they would go past the 90th minute still refusing to be separated.
The 94th minute, however, would produce the only goal of the match, with Morocco’s Aziz Bouhaddouz sticking the ball into his own net as he tried to defend Iran’s late corner.
There would be no time left for the Lions to correct their mistake, leaving Team Melli with a narrow 1-0 victory in the end as they became the first Asian side to win a World Cup match since Japan in 2010.
Morocco: Munir | Hakimi, Benatia (c), Saiss, Ziyach, El Ahmadi, Belhanda, Boussoufa, Ambrabat, Harit, El Kaabi.
Iran: Beiranvand | Hajisafi, Cheshmi, Pouraliganji, Rezaeain, Shojaei (c), Ebrahimi, Amiri, Ansarifard, Jahanbakhsh, Azmoun.