Despite the return of Jonas and the sparkling form of Raúl Jiménez, Benfica continue to be linked with a string of forwards in the Portuguese press. One of the latest names to be mentioned is Sardar Azmoun, a rumour that also did the rounds in the summer. To learn more about the young Rostov striker, we chatted to Russian football expert Mikhail Morozov of Bombardir.ru and SportFM.ru.
Azmoun is a 21-year old youngster that plays for Russian club Rostov. His team finished as runners-up in the Russian Premier League last season, just two points behind the champions CSKA, thereby depriving the mega-rich Zenit of a Champions League place. Rostov do not have any huge stars in their squad, but Azmoun is one of their best players. He scored nine goals in the league last term, which is a decent figure in the RPL, where the top goalscorer typically gets 15 to 20 goals in a season.
As a child, Azmoun looked set for a glittering career as a volleyball player, but eventually opted for football. Since 18, he has been one of the most promising youngsters in Eastern Europe. He started his professional career with Rubin Kazan, but was benched after the resignation of head coach Kurban Berdyev. Later, after Berdyev had taken over at Rostov, Azmoun followed him. The transfer caused a scandal, since Rostov triggered a buy-out clause which Rubin claimed was non-existent! Azmoun has often said that Berdyev is like a "second father" to him.
A pacy centre-forward, Azmoun is great for counter-attacking sides because of his speed. At Rostov, he is used to playing in a two-man frontline as part of a 3-5-2 formation. He is good in the air, two-footed, and a deadly finisher. Give him space to run into and he will cause damage.
Azmoun has acquired the nickname of the "Iranian Messi", but he does not like these comparisons. "I'm not Messi, he is too good at dribbling. We are different! I want to be like Ibrahimovic. It's a different style, but I want to play like him" he said, adding: “I have always admired Zlatan because his technical skills are amazing for such a big man.”
The Iranian is a big-game player. Azmoun is already a key component of the Iranian national team, having scored 16 goals in 22 appearances. He is now the eighth highest goalscorer in the nation’s history, and only three goals away from fifth place. As well as his excellent record at international level, he has scored Champions League goals against Bayern Munich, Atlético Madrid, Anderlecht and Ajax this season. He is a strong runner, dribbler and finisher, and his short passing is already at a good level. He is very dangerous in the air, and scores a lot of headed goals. He has improved massively at winning aerial duels.
While Azmoun clearly relishes the big occasion, he has been struggling slightly in domestic competition. He has only scored twice in fourteen league games this season, although this partly reflects the defensive nature of the Russian league; Rostov sit comfortably in mid-table, but average just 1.1 goals per game. His passing accuracy has dropped this campaign, he is not reknowned for his long-range shooting, and his ball control could also be improved.
Despite his height, Azmoun is not particularly strong, and can get brushed off the ball at times. He struggles to complete ninety minutes, and is regularly substituted in the second half of games. Azmoun’s temperament is another question mark, after he was sent off for kicking out at an opponent on Matchweek 2. But he is a well-mannered guy with a good family, and he will have learned from the experience.
Two years ago, Liverpool were credited with an interest, which was met with surprise and bemusement from some fans, but knowing glances from the more attentive followers of the Russian championship. Shortly afterwards, he scored two goals at the 2015 Asian Cup, one of which was truly amazing. Since then, Azmoun has been linked with Arsenal, Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund, Everton, Schalke, Marseille, Ajax and PSV. According to the Portuguese media, Benfica wanted to buy him in the summer, and may re-visit the option in the near future. Liverpool and Everton are also thought to be front-runners.
He is contracted to Rostov until the summer of 2018, with an estimated market value of around €7 million. However, after a lucrative spell in the Champions League (and now the Europa League), Rostov are unlikely to sell him for less than €10 million. Azmoun has great potential, and his stock has definitely risen with his recent goals against Bayern and Atlético.
How he would fit in at Benfica
At a professional level, Azmoun has only worked with Kurban Berdyev, who builds teams with strong defences that are set up to win 1-0 rather than 3-2. They are totally disciplined sides that aim to keep a clean-sheet and then convert what few chances come their way. Benfica would be a different story, because 95% of their matches are played against opponents that sit back and "park the bus". The Iranian would therefore need time to adjust to the Eagles’ possession-based style of football. That said, Benfica can be lethal on the break when given the opportunity, and Azmoun is accustomed to playing in a counter-attacking team. Also, Rui Vitória favours a 4-4-2 formation, which is good because Azmoun is not yet equipped to lead the line by himself.
The other challenge will be settling in Portugal. Berdyev has helped him a lot not only with his football, but also in his private life. If he joins Benfica, it will be very important for him to come with his family. It is a different country, with a different culture. The level of attention and pressure will be massive and he is still young. How will he cope with the transition?
Likelihood of a move to Lisbon
4/10. Portuguese clubs have a great ability to identify promising talent much earlier than other teams around Europe, but Azmoun’s name is now well-known after his exploits in the Champions League, and he may use his newfound status to engineer a move to an even bigger league. Then again, Benfica would be a very good place for him to develop his skills whilst playing regularly in the Champions League.
Azmoun still has a lot to learn, and Benfica would be the perfect place for him to do it. The move would benefit both parties; the Iranian could use the club as a stepping stone in his career, while for Benfica, Azmoun’s signature should open up some exciting new marketing opportunities in Western Asia. The young striker is hugely popular in Iran, with over 1.3 million followers on Instagram.
Full name: Sardar Azmoun
DOB: January 1st 1995 (Age 21)
Club: FK Rostov
Height: 1.86 m
Preferred foot: Both