Group B – consisting of England, USA, Wales and Iran – concluded and here are my reactions from all six fixtures that took place over the past week.
England 6-2 Iran
After a slow dragged out opener between Qatar and Ecuador, this fixture provided excitement and reminded everyone the World Cup is here, especially in the North East. Other than conceding two goals to the nation from AFC the Three Lions looked like the team to beat in group B. It was a performance that shouldn’t be overlooked by their other group rivals. Through one match England looked confident, comfortable and in control and managed to hold Iran to only 21% possession. The only negative for Gareth Southgate’s side was allowing Iran to took the ball. Despite a low possession percentage, the Iranians managed eight attempts on goal with six coming from inside the box and three forcing a save from Jordan Pickford. Iran looked both better and worse than they did four years ago in Russia. In their opening match this year they got battered by a quick English attack and had a poor defensive shape – they did play a defensive heavy style. Although going down 4-0 before grabbing their first goal, Iran showed glimmers of hope in their counter attack. Overall, for the way both teams played, I thought the result was a fair one, maybe a goal or two less from England would’ve highlighted the good qualities from the Iranian team.
USA 1-1 Wales
As an American, I will say this result hurt. This match was a tale of two halves. The US looked the most dangerous in the first half. Many of their opportunities came through the first 45 and Timothy Weah was able to fulfill his and his father’s, George Weah, dream of scoring at a World Cup after finding the back of the net thanks to a through ball that split the defense by Christian Pulisic. The Americans should’ve gone into half-time with a multi-goal lead and the Welsh were fortunate to be only a goal down. The second 45 flipped the game on its head. Most of the shot attempts by Wales came in the second half. Rob Page’s side put relentless pressure on the Stars and Stripes and caused many turnovers and fouls. The vital foul coming in the 80′ when Walker Zimmerman took down Gareth Bale in the box, leading him to equalize from the penalty spot. The goal was deserved for the Welsh, but the game should’ve been put to bed my a handful of US goals in the first half. The resilience shown by the Welsh prove that they want to make a further run than the golden generation in 1958 did – having bowed out in the quarterfinals thanks to a lone goal by Pelé. The USA are looking to match their best run which was achieved in the first World Cup in 1930 where they finished as semi-finalist.
Wales 0-2 Iran
This result was shocking. After initial reactions to how both sides played in their opening matches and the draw back in April Wales were seen to rout Iran. From kick-off Iran was the better team. Although boasting over half of the possession, Wales weren’t able to create many opportunities and were outshot by the Iranians 10-21. Iran looked deadly, they failed to create a shot in only seven final third entries totaling 28 final third entries during the fixture. Wales looked hopeless, exhausted and defeated in the opening minutes. Wayne Hennessey’s red card in the 86′ didn’t help the Welsh hopes for advancing out of the group. Iran deserved and achieved three points, and if they were to pick up points this is the match they were to focus on. It took to 90+8′ and 90+11′ to grab both goals, but nonetheless, goals that thrashed hopes for Wales to qualify for the last 16 and saw the Welsh at the bottom of the table. Goals seemed inevitable for the nation ranked 20th by FIFA and I was still surprised to see the ball hit the back of the net. Before the first goal, the Iranians hit the woodwork three times in the second half alone, each time building anticipation for the breakthrough. Wales left the stadium in panic mode and most likely started packing. Iran, on the other hand, have luck on their side entering the final match day and could surprise the USA with the energy they brought against the Welsh.
England 0-0 USA
Many people say, especially in England, that the USA played great, which they did, and the the Three Lions played terribly, in which I argue the didn’t. England almost went up a goal or two in the first half after either mishitting or skying a golden ball that was played back toward the top of the six yard box after cutting in from the end line. The USMNT should’ve converted as well, with the best opportunity coming from Pulisic in the first half after his shot beat Pickford but was denied by the crossbar. Some of this fixture is being overlooked by the misuse of Southgate’s substitutions, most notably leaving Phil Foden as an unused substitute. Matt Turner played brilliantly against the English and Tyler Adams was the best player on the pitch hands down. The Stars and Stripes didn’t lose focus in the second half like they did in the their opener against Wales. It’s no surprise to say that England were fortunate to escape with a point. I believe this result has put a good image on the USA and they should be taken more serious against top opposition. The 0-0 results leaves both England and USA in a great position to go into the final match day and control their destiny.
Wales 0-3 England
This game showed all control to England and they had three goals to show for it. Wales seemed hopeless, but didn’t let that stop them from the slimmer of hope to advance putting x shots against and English side that held most of the ball. Early goals in the second half by Marcus Rashford and Foden ask the question if Southgate has played the best XI throughout the first two games. Overall, It was a poor tournament from the Welsh. They had high hopes of advancing, especially after salvaging a point against the US in the first game of their campaign. Having their backs against the Wall in their final match day was too much pressure. The Three Lions cruised through two of their three matches, Southgate even made changes including starting Foden. This was a comfortable result but they must up the energy if they look to make a deep run in the knockout stage of the tournament.
Iran 0-1 USA
This game was nerve-racking in the final 20 minutes. The USA dominated possession and didn’t allow a single shot from the Iranians in the first half. A beautiful lofted ball from Weston McKennie to Sergiño Dest was then headed across to Pulisic and proved to be the only goal of the game, an important one nonetheless. Iran, like Wales in the opening match, were fortunate to not be going into half-time down by multiple goals. With Iran only needing a draw to advance, the Iranians came out swinging in the second half. To my surprise they created dangerous opportunities and almost grabbed an equalizer late in the match. Pulisic and Josh Sargent came off with injuries in the match and it would be a devastating blow if neither are available for the USA’s round of 16 fixture against the Dutch. You live for tight, anxiety driven matches, but they almost give you heart attacks if your country is the one playing that match. Many times I found myself heavily exhaling. Especially in the final nine minutes plus nine added minutes. Gregg Berhalter changed his shape in the 81′ to five in the back to secure the victory. The Stars and Stripes need to just work on their finishing and score more. If the red, white and blue can achieve that they can run with any team they face. Iran deserve credit for their World Cup run. Just like in Russia 2018, Iran were desperately close to advancing to the knockout stage for the first time in their history. Could the 2026 World Cup be the first time Iran advance, possibly.
But for now focus shifts from the group to the round of 16 as the remaining fixtures will be decided in the next few days
With group A concluding as well the first fixtures for the round of 16 will be Netherlands vs. USA on Saturday December 3 at 10:00 and England vs. Senegal on Sunday December 4 at 14:00.