KAZAN, Russia (AP) It was on a cold night of November two years ago that Iran center forward Sardar Azmoun displayed his class to the world.
Playing against Bayern Munich in the Champions League with his Russian Premier League club Rostov, Azmoun collected a pass from a teammate on the edge of the area. He continued his run into the box, sent defender Jerome Boateng to the ground with a fine dribble and showed the composure of a seasoned veteran to slot the ball home with a calm finish.
That night, Rostov pulled off a surprise 3-2 win over Bayern, the kind of upset Iran will be looking for when it takes on Spain at the Kazan Arena on Wednesday at the World Cup following a 1-0 win against Morocco in its opening game. Spain drew its opening Group B match 3-3 with Portugal last week.
With his excellent dribbling skills, the 23-year-old Azmoun has all the qualities required to become a big star of the game. Already regarded as one of the best players in the Russian Premier League, Azmoun was impressive during Iran's unbeaten qualifying campaign for the World Cup, scoring 11 goals.
With 23 goals in 33 international matches, Azmoun is already fifth on Iran's all-time list, following in the footsteps of the great Ali Daei, who scored 109 goals in 149 appearances with Iran.
"As a child, I used to look up at players like Ali Daei, or Zlatan Ibrahimovic," Azmoun said. "Watching and studying them told me a lot as a player."
Azmoun has been nicknamed the "Iranian Messi" although he takes his inspiration from the former Sweden international.
"Ibrahimovic is a great player, and as a fellow forward, he probably is the player I most want to play like."
Of course, Azmoun is lagging well behind Messi and Ibrahimovic in the soccer greats' hierarchy, but his potential is huge. At 6 feet 4 inches tall (1.86 meters), Azmoun has excellent qualities in the air, but he is also a top goal poacher with finishing skills. His talent hasn't gone unnoticed and Azmoun has been linked for a move with several big European teams.
The son of a former Iran volleyball player, he has been playing in Russia since he turned professional. Now with Rubin Kazan, he will feel at home against Spain as the game has been scheduled at the Kazan Arena in the capital of the Tatarstan region.
Although Iran is attacking more than at the last World Cup, coach Carlos Queiroz's team can now focus on defending well as a draw would keep it ahead of the 2010 champions in their quest for a knockout round spot.
Spain's priority will be not only to win after being held to a 3-3 draw by Portugal, but also to score as many goals as possible in a group where top spot is likely to be decided on goal difference if Spain and Portugal win their last two remaining matches.
Iran has proved to be very difficult to break. The Persian side was able to produce a clean sheet against Morocco after staying unbeaten in 10 qualifiers. It didn't concede a single goal in their first nine qualifying games.
"Everybody knows that Spain is one of the greatest teams in football history, and one thing that we can guarantee is that the Spanish team will not have an easy time against us," Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand said. "Everybody knows that our boys are fighters, and we will fight and we will keep our concentration until the very last second of the match."
Spanish players have shown against Portugal they have quickly digested the unexpected firing of coach Julen Lopetegui.
They failed to win against Portugal, but were far better than their Iberian rivals during a fine display of collective strength and beautiful football. Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets impressed in midfield and center forward Diego Costa is in sensational form.
"When one has players like these, who collaborate and work hard, life is so much easier," new Spain coach Fernando Hierro said. "One is grateful when one has folks who are so committed."
Despite his blunder against Portugal, when he let a shot from Cristiano Ronaldo slip through his fingers, David De Gea remains first-choice goalkeepers.
The Manchester United player has received marks of support and affection from his coach and teammates, leaving no doubts he will start against Iran.
"De Gea is feeling fine. Obviously he knows he made a mistake," Spain defender Nacho Fernandez said. "The most important thing is that the team protects him, supports him to death."
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Updated June 18, 2018