AL RAYYAN, Qatar (Reuters) -Iran ignored the distractions that have overshadowed the team since they landed in Qatar to get their World Cup campaign up and running as they rallied to beat sloppy Wales 2-0 on Friday, giving themselves a chance of reaching the knockout stage.
Iran were thrashed 6-2 by England in their Group B opener but those two goals against the table-toppers gave them the confidence that they could compete with European sides as they arrived at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium with a point to prove.
The Asian team has never got past the group stage at five previous World Cups but Carlos Queiroz’s players will now fancy their chances after an impressive display as they punished a Welsh side that was reduced to 10 men late in the second half.
Leading strikers Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi both ply their trade in Europe and Queiroz, who had opted for just one forward against England, paired them up front to keep the Welsh defence pegged back and on their toes throughout the game.
Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand missed the game after suffering a concussion and a broken nose against England and his replacement Seyed Hossein Hosseini was very much up to the task against Wales despite shipping six goals in the opener.
A cagey start saw Iran exploit gaps in Wales’ midfield which had a numerical advantage but lacked discipline and was easily overrun when both Aaron Ramsey and Ethan Ampadu poured forward.
Iran fired their first warning shot when they had the ball in the net in the opening half against the run of play when they pounced on a weak pass, only for the effort to be ruled out for offside.
But that disallowed goal was enough to sow doubts into the Wales camp while it gave Iran belief that Rob Page’s side was there for the taking.
After a goalless first half, it was barely minutes into the second period when Iran burst into life as Azmoun and Ali Gholizadeh hit the woodwork within seconds of each other while Saeid Ezatolahi also had an attempt saved.
That sowed panic in the Welsh side that was visibly tiring in the heat and it came to a head when goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey charged out of his box and took out Taremi with a high knee, as he received a red card for his troubles.
The sending off opened up the game for Iran who burst forward with renewed vigour and, with nine minutes of stoppage time added on, they floored Wales with a deadly one-two punch to leave the Welsh fans in the stands in tears.
Roozbeh Cheshmi opened the scoring with a sublime long-range strike that had substitute keeper Danny Ward scrambling before Ramin Rezaeian doubled the lead with a neat chip on another counter-attack where they outnumbered their Welsh counterparts.
Walaes manager Robert Page could only look on helplessly as his players failed to implement his plans, with Kieffer Moore and Gareth Bale barely seeing the ball while the experienced Aaron Ramsey failed to influence the game from midfield.
Page had decided to start Moore after his impressive second half performance against the United States.
But it backfired as the physically imposing striker did not make an impact apart from an early shot on goal that was well saved by Hosseini at point-blank range.