Iran's World Cup hopes rest on AZ Alkmaar's Alireza Jahanbakhsh
It is not often that free-scoring forwards have to step out of the shadow of miserly defenders to take the spotlight, but that is what Alireza Jahanbakhsh will be doing this June.
Iran's defence made all the headlines in Asia during qualification for the 2018 World Cup, conceding just two goals in 10 games in the final group stage of qualification. But Jahanbakhsh is the man who can take Team Melli to a first-ever place in the second round. After all, the 24-year-old is one of the most in-form players in Europe.
The powerful and fast winger is leading the scoring charts in the Netherlands with 18 goals. Last week's hat trick (and assist) for AZ Alkmaar in a 4-3 win for Vitesse kept the team in the hunt for second spot and entry into the Champions League. It was a performance that showcased a talented player at the top of his game.
The first goal was a ball, suddenly loose in the area, dispatched without fuss into the far corner with an instinctive shot. The superb second put AZ 3-2 ahead and it started with a give-and-go, continued with a run down the right wing and ended with a lovely lob over an advancing goalkeeper from the corner of the area. The third was a 25-yard strike that sealed the win. Rarely was a match ball won in such spectacular fashion.
AZ coach John van den Brom was as admiring as the fans lucky enough to witness such a performance.
"You never talk about individuals, but after such a match as tonight, you can," Brom said. "He's just a fantastic player, but for me as a coach it might be even better that he's a great person... just wonderful to have in the team. To be top scorer with three great goals and an assist, and all that as right winger."
With two games remaining, AZ have third safely secured, which provides entry to the Europa League. But Ajax are five points clear in second. The two teams meet on Sunday .
With Jahanbakhsh in such great form, Ajax will be wary -- as will World Cup opponents Morocco, Spain and Portugal. In 2014, Team Melli were a little unlucky to collect just a single point in a tough group containing Nigeria, Argentina and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is a different Iran team and this is a different Jahanbakhsh. Then 20, the forward played just 49 minutes in Brazil.
In Russia, he will be expecting more. Now in his fifth season in the Netherlands, Jahanbakhsh appeared in all 10 of Iran's games in the third round of qualification. Helped by a defence that didn't concede a goal in the first nine games, Iran strolled along the road to Russia in a manner that befitted the highest-ranked team in Asia. Next is to follow the example of the heroes of 1998 and win a game, and then hopefully to go a step further.
At home, there have been comparisons with Iranian legend Mehdi Mahdavikia, who played over 100 times for the national team and scored against the United States in that famous win at the 1998 World Cup. Mahdavikia also spent 12 years in the Bundesliga and advised a teenage Jahanbakhsh to make the brave decision to leave Iran and head to the Netherlands.
It would be fitting if Jahanbakhsh could inspire a new generation of fans watching back in Iran this summer.
"I still remember Iran's qualification in 1998, the memorable game against Australia where we drew 2-2 and we made it to the World Cup," the winger said in March. "It is also when I found out, as a six-year-old, how important football and the World Cup is."
For Iran it is very important. This football-loving nation has always had passion and talent, but they've rarely, if ever, been as strong,as they are today. Jahanbakhsh looks more than ready to show the devastating form that has become the norm in the Netherlands in the biggest tournament of all. Now is the time. Just as Mo Salah being the standout player in England this season means he should arrive in Russia full of confidence to lead Egypt into the knockout stages, Jahanbakhsh can do the same for Iran.
Fans of AZ will surely look on with pride should he do so, but also with the knowledge that a good World Cup will make it even likelier that he will leave. The size of the clubs already reportedly interested in the player are pretty big as it is. Napoli have been linked, but it is rumoured that the winger would love nothing more than to follow countrymen such as Ali Daei, Ali Karimi and Vahid Hashemian into Bayern Munich.
None of those legends really starred at the Bavarian giants, but Jahanbakhsh has what it takes to succeed where others did not. First, though, his mission is to make history with Iran.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.