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banner Monday, 5 November, 2001, 11:59 GMT
Karimi is Iran dangerman
Iran Ali Karimi (second leg)
Iran's Ali Karimi (second left) has great dribbling skills
BBC Sport Online's John Haughey takes a closer look at the Iranian football team which faces the Republic of Ireland in the World Cup play-off

Ali Karimi is a name which could become very familiar to Republic of Ireland fans in the coming fortnight.

Karimi carries the hopes of a soccer-mad Iranian nation into the World Cup play-off against Mick McCarthy's Republic side.

The first leg takes place on Saturday in Dublin with the return game in Tehran on 15 November.

Twenty-year-old Karimi recently turned down a lucrative five-year deal with Spanish giants Atletico Madrid in favour of a two-season deal with United Arab Emirates club Al Ahli.

Karimi has not ruled a move to Europe in the future but he says that he prefers to remain closer to home at this stage.

Some Iranian soccer commentators have dubbed Karimi the Maradona of Asia.

Ali Dei in action for Iran
Ali Daei plays for Hertha Berlin

However, his goalscoring rate of late has not matched such lofty descriptions.

He hit only two goals in Iran's 10 qualifying matches although his dribbling trickery should have yielded many more.

Karimi's finishing has been letting him down in recent matches but he is hoping to put that right against the Irish.

Overall, Iran's strength lies in midfield and attack.

Former Charlton man Karim Bagheri is something of a hardman in midfield and his expected tussle with Roy Keane in Tehran could prove crucial.

In attack, Hertha Berlin's Ali Daei is well-known to Champions League viewers having played in Europe's Premier club competition for his current club and Bayern Munich.

The 1999 Asian player of the year has struggled to establish himself as a regular first team player in his two seasons at Hertha.

Daei says his international commitments have inhibited his chances of being successful in Germany.

Republic of Ireland boss Mick McCarthy
Mick McCarthy saw Iran's wins over UAE

He has said he will leave Berlin at the end of this season and claims to have received offers from clubs in a number of countries including England.

Despite his struggles at club level, Daei has continued to be a vital member of the Iranian national side and he has now accumulated over 90 caps.

While Iran look solid in midfield and attack, the same cannot be said about the country's defence.

The departure from the international scene of Mohammad Khakpour and Javad Zarincheh appears to have weakened the Iranian defence since the 1998 World Cup.

Both played in the memorable 2-1 win over the United States in France which was one of the most satisfying wins in Iranian football history.

Iranian defensive woes were most apparent in the 3-1 defeat by Bahrain which cost them an automatic place in the Finals.

Hundreds of home fans clashed with police in Tehran after the surprise defeat.

Witnesses said crowds of supporters attacked banks and government buildings after rumours spread that the 3-1 defeat at home to Bahrain had been fixed.

Therefore the Republic can expect an intimidating atmosphere at the Azabi Stadium before 110,000 fans in the return leg on 15 November.

Other top World Cup 2002 stories:

Links to more World Cup 2002 stories are at the foot of the page.


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