3. Sardar Azmoun (Last Year: 21)
Rostov (RUS) / Iran / Striker
Words by Sina Saemian
Not many players in Asia have enjoyed as meteoric a rise to the top in the past couple of years as Sardar Azmoun has. The 22-year-old striker has come a long way from a 15-year-old at Sepahan, to scoring regularly for the Iran national team and also in the UEFA Champions League. 2015 saw him playing regularly at Rostov, first saving them from relegation in May, before helping them kickstart a fairytale season which saw them challenging at the top end of the table with the big boys of Russian football.
The second half of 2015/16 season marked an unbelievable run for Rostov which almost saw them become the champions of Russia. Azmoun, who saw himself at home at Rostov working with Kurban Berdyev, contributed to the cause fantastically as he went on a goalscoring streak which saw him score in five consecutive games including a brace against Dynamo Moscow. Rostov failed to replicate the achievements of Leicester City as they finished 2nd narrowly behind Zenit, but their worthy reward was qualification for the UEFA Champions League.
Over the summer, as expected, many rumours about his future flew around but Azmoun expressed his intention to stay at Rostov and help them on their European journey. They faced an uphill battle to reach the group stages but they overcame tough ties against Anderlecht and Ajax to reach the group stages, with Azmoun scoring against both teams, including a spectacular header against the Dutch giants.
As Iranians across the world rubbed their hands together in anticipation of once again watching one of their own players feature against the giants of European football, Azmoun relished the challenge of going up against the likes of Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid. And he did not disappoint the fans;a cool finish against the ever so resilient Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon definitely turned some heads around Europe, and most importantly gave him more confidence. That confidence was there for the world to see when Bayern Munich travelled to Russia. Rostov fans, and Iranian fans alike, were ecstatic when Azmoun scored an incredible solo goal against one of the best teams in the world. Rostov qualified for the next stage of the UEFA Europa League and Azmoun will be keen to carry on his European form.
For Iran, his role is as important as ever. He faces more competition than he could’ve imagined, with the revival of Ghoochannejhad in the Netherlands, the rise of Ansarifard who’s just moved to Olympiacos, and the form of Persepolis striker Mehdi Taremi. But Queiroz has trust in his main man and Azmoun has not disappointed. He scored the crucial goal in the 1-0 victory over World Cup qualification rivals, South Korea, which has placed Iran on top of their qualification group.
The following year can be seen as an important year for him, with speculation about his future increasing by the day, he will have to make some tough decisions over the summer. He has repeatedly stated that he is happy with life in Russia, but the lures of clubs like Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund could be difficult to turn down.
Highlight of the year – Taking Jerome Boateng for a ride
There are too many to choose from. From his poacher-like finish against South Korea in the Azadi Stadium, to his well composed strike against Spanish giants, Atletico Madrid. But, as great as those goals were, it is extremely tough to ignore what he did to one of the best central defenders in the world.
When his attacking partner in crime DmitriPoloz squared the ball to Azmoun, as they were through two on two against the Bayern defence midway through the Bayern half, not many could guess what would happen next. Azmoun ran towards the goal with the ball at his feet and as he entered the German box, Jerome Boateng was there to close him down. Azmoun, however, faked a shot with his left foot with Boateng sliding to block the shot, and as Boateng watched hapless on his back, the Iranian calmly brought the ball on his right foot to comfortably put it past Manuel Neuer while the rest of us watched with our mouths wide open (or maybe it was just me).