The second Group C game between Iran and Bahrain was never supposed to be a particularly enjoyable contest. And despite the high-octane football, some fantastic atmosphere, and a wonderful strike from Ehsan Hajsafi, it didn’t exceed the low expectations in terms of overall quality. However, there was still one player who was a great joy to watch: Iran’s Ashkan Dejagah.
It was the ex-Fulham winger who was responsible for most of the game’s impressive flow. In terms of flair and skill, he was distinctively head and shoulders above the Bahrainis as well as the majority of his teammates.
Yet it was the author of the game-winning goal, Ehsan Hajsafi, who was given the Man of the Match award, a decision I find rather convenient in retrospect.
While Sardar Azmoun and Alireza Jahanbakhsh have been pinpointed as emerging Asian football stars or at least potential breakout players, and Alireza Haghighi, Mehrdad Pooladi or Reza Ghoochannejad are often identified as the key men for Iran; it occurs to me that Ashkan Dejagah doesn’t draw nearly as much attention despite falling squarely in both categories.
Granted, it may be considered strange to highlight a 28-year-old player with six full Bundesliga seasons under his belt as a potential candidate for having a breakout tournament. But when one considers that he only debuted for the national team in February 2012, the point becomes easier to grasp.
We simply haven’t seen much from him yet, which is probably also why he doesn’t get enough recognition as one of the Iranian stars.
But appreciating Dejagah shouldn’t be difficult, since he has already earned some well-deserved plaudits. I hope I’m not alone when I state that the Dejagah-Pooladi tandem working together to frustrate Zabaleta & (mostly) di Maria for the entire 90 minutes of the Argentina match in last year’s World Cup was one of the most exciting defensive showings I’ve ever seen.
It was Dejagah himself who accounted for the lion’s share of my pleasure as a spectator; while Iran’s left-hand side occupied by Pooladi and Dejagah struck me as being far superior, now it was actually the opposite one – which coincidentally also featured the clever, hard-working Dejagah; and once again was the lane being used by an opponent to go forward.
What made the biggest difference alongside this frequently exploited touchline – and in fact, in the whole game generally – was Dejagah’s flawless first touch and ball control, supplemented by his occasional twist-and-turn drawing as many as three fouls in rather dangerous areas.
There’s also Dejagah’s astonishing work rate, a rarely seen attribute especially for such a gifted winger. In this respect, the Al-Arabi star might not be the busiest tackler, but that’s simply because he doesn’t often get a chance to be one.
As a muscular and agile player, capable of quick change of both pace and direction, Dejagah is well-versed in chasing an opponent up to the point he virtually stops being any sort of threat on his own.
Obviously, there were still some drawbacks to Dejagah’s performance against Bahrain. His decision-making in the final third wasn’t always spot on, and his usually-dangerous set-pieces were clearly inferior to those from Teymourian or Shojaei.
But despite all these imperfections Dejagah was a real difference-maker for Iran on Sunday, which came particularly handy in a match where Nekounam looked to be off the pace for most of the time and even Andranik wasn’t his usually reliable self.
In other words, someone simply had to step up for Persians, and that someone was Ashkan Dejagah.
A player with a seemingly infinite appetite for attacking as well as defending and a winger who’s incredibly valuable to Iran for providing a cutting edge with his runs behind the defensive line, as well as for his creative production of lovely through balls on a regular basis.
It was only Iran’s first appearance at the tournament, granted. But if we can take something from it, then it’s that Iran appear to rely on Dejagah to a great extent. Perhaps far more than they should have to if they hope to progress to the January 31 final in Stadium Australia.