By Sudipto Ganguly
SARANSK, Russia (Reuters) - Portugal responded strongly to coach Fernando Santos's criticism about lack of possession against Morocco with a dominant midfield performance against Iran on Monday, but they were still unable to make their advantage pay off.
In their second Group B match, Portugal struggled to impose themselves against the North Africans and ended up defending for long spells, leaving Santos fuming at his own players even after a 1-0 win.
The European champions made a clear effort to take control of the midfield on Monday night, putting together numerous passes rather than just lofting long balls towards captain Cristiano Ronaldo against the Asian powerhouse at the Mordovia Arena.
Against Iran, Portugal had 68 percent ball possession while completing a whopping 548 passes, compared with their opponent's 155, and with an accuracy rate of 89 percent.
Midfielders Adrien Silva and William moved the ball around, while the crosses from wingers Joao Mario and Ricardo Quaresma into the Iran box to the lurking Ronaldo, hungry to add to his four-goal tally, made Portugal look dangerous.
But the scoreline did not reflect their control of the game, and even Santos praised the Iranians' playing.
"We had a strong opponent, so I would like to give (Iran coach) Carlos (Queiroz) congratulations for the beautiful things they have done," Santos told reporters after the game.
It was not until the stroke of halftime that Portugal went ahead through some individual brilliance from World Cup debutant Quaresma.
Finding another scorer apart from Ronaldo, who logged all four of their goals in the opening two matches, was a positive.
But it is unlikely to have put an end to their scoring problems, mirroring their run at the Euro championships in 2016, where they drew all their group games and had less possession than their opponents in all of their knockout matches.
Santos put some of the problem down to all the new faces in the squad.
"There are many new people in this team, we have to grow together. We have to try and improve, but the most important thing has been accomplished," he said.
Iran's physical approach in the second half, during which Queiroz's men chased down every ball, took Portugal's control away from the game and made them look vulnerable.
After Ronaldo failed to convert a penalty, Iran equalised through a penalty in stoppage time - and almost scored a winner that would have sent Portugal out of the competition.
In 27 competitive matches since Santos took over in September 2014, Portugal have lost just once, and the manager was relieved to have come through another close affair. He will not mind another campaign resembling their Euro run if Portugal continue winning - even if in an unconvincing fashion.
In the second round, Portugal will play Uruguay in Sochi on June 30 with the twice World Cup winners topping Group A with wins in all their three matches.
"We know the difficulties we're going to have against Uruguay," Quaresma said. "They are a big team with very big players, but the most important thing now is for us to recover and to get ready."
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; Editing by Hugh Lawson)