Why Iran have no reason to fear England in their FIFA World Cup opener

BEIJING - Iran's players celebrate after beating the Philippines in the 2019 FIBA World Cup which earned them a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Dan Jung/ESPN

DOHA, Qatar -- Iran begin their 2022 FIFA World Cup campaign on Monday with a tricky Group B tie against England.

They will be underdogs. That much is undeniable. But that should hardly mean they should head into the tie with any fear for their opponents.

In any case, heading into contest thinking they do not have a chance has never been the Team Melli way.

Just look at the last World Cup in 2018. Similarly, few outside of Asia expected them to do little more than make up the numbers.

Yet after beating Morocco 2-1 in their Group B opener, they then fell to a narrow and creditable 1-0 loss to powerhouses Spain -- setting up a decisive group-stage finale against another heavyweight Portugal.

It was a game no one gave them a chance in and somehow they came from behind to force a draw with an injury-time penalty and even missed a golden opportunity right at the death to snatch a stunning victory - that would have sealed qualification to the knockout round.

Their inspiring displays at that tournament eventually led to the realisation that the core of the team could potentially be a golden generation for Team Melli, with star names like Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Sardar Azmoun, Mehdi Taremi, Alireza Beiranvand and Saeid Ezatolahi all within the same age range.

Four years on, those players have only enhanced their reputations and more have followed their path with 13 of Iran's 25-man squad for this World Cup currently plying their trade in Europe.

The likes of Jahanbakhsh, Taremi and Azmoun are all at the peak of their powers and there is a growing belief that this is not only the time for the Iranians to reach the knockout round of the World Cup for the first time ever, but it may be their best chance ever.

So why should Iran show any fear for England. Respect? For sure. But England will have to show respect to Iran too or they could be in for a rude surprise.

With injuries ruling out a couple of first-team defenders, the England will certainly be more vulnerable than usual -- especially on the right of defence, where Jahanbakhsh could be given free rein to run riot down that wing.

Even in the centre, John Stones and Harry Maguire are hardly the two most confidence-instilling centre-backs with both never too far away from a potentially-costly error -- the latter even more so.

It will be a duel that Porto star Taremi -- and Leverkusen man Azmoun, if he is passed fit -- should be looking forward to rather than dreading.

Of course, England do have their strengths that will genuinely test the Iranians.

In Harry Kane, the Three Lions boast one of the world's best strikers while the likes of Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish and Marcus Rashford all have the potential to decide a contest on their own.

If both teams perform to the best of their capabilities, England should win it -- and that is why they are the favourites for a reason.

But while Team Melli will have to respect them, there is absolutely no reason to show any fear.