England are the favorites to emerge from their group but a World Cup like no other makes one wonder how easy this opening round of games will be.
Gareth Southgate has just a week to work with his players before their World Cup season begins on November 21 and there are three sides in England’s path that could cause problems.
England, themselves fifth in the world rankings, play in the top 20 against three sides including a side from Wales who are looking to reach their first World Cup finals in 64 years by a scalp over their neighbours.
With the recent World Cup disappointment involving the United States and an unknown entity in Iran, Sky Sports analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the three sides awaiting England in Group B.
Enemy One: Iran (November 21)
- FIFA Ranking: 20
- World Cup successes: First round (1978), group stage (1998, 2006, 2014, 2018)
Widely regarded as outsiders in the England-US-Wales group, Iran have provided enough examples for those willing to look closely that they could cause a surprise or two in Qatar.
While England and Wales were relegated to the Nations League in their final games before the World Cup and America’s far from convincing preparation ended in defeat by Japan and a goalless draw with Saudi Arabia, Iran beat Uruguay 1-0 and one 1-1 draw with Africa Cup of Nations winners Senegal.
In both games, Iran recorded fewer shots, less possession and spent a lot of time on the backfoot, but their defensive determination was remarkable – as was their ability to capitalize on their occasional chances at the other end, with Mehdi Taremi underscoring his threat with the winner Uruguay .
Expect coach Carlos Queiroz to take a similar approach at the World Cup, aiming to keep opponents at bay before capitalizing on the break from former Brighton striker Alireza Jahanbakhsh or capitalizing on the header power of Bayer Leverkusen’s Sardar Azmoun .
If England, USA or Wales don’t use the ball effectively when they have it, they could be caught by this underrated Iran side.
Players to watch: Mehdi Taremi
With 28 goals in 60 caps, it’s no secret that Iran will be hoping for Porto’s Mehdi Taremi in Qatar.
The odds for the Group B underdogs are likely slim but the 30-year-old, who scored 20 goals when Porto won the Primeira Liga last season, has shown he has the ability to capitalize on the opportunities that arise offer him – although a miss against Portugal four years ago proved costly.
Taremi’s falling out with former boss Dragan Skocic played a role in the Croatian’s late departure from his role in charge of Iran ahead of this World Cup and the frontman will be keen to show that it was wrong for his former boss to ditch him and join reconcile for this miss in Russia.
What the experts say:
Karen Carney speaks on Sky Sports’ World Cup Preview Show: “I think the first game is the hardest. The first of a big tournament is tough.
“Iran will be well organized and have a few strikers with Champions League experience.”
Opponent 2: USA (November 25)
- FIFA Ranking: 16
- World Cup successes: Semifinals (1930), Quarterfinals (2002), Round of 16 (1934, 1994, 2010, 2014)
The USA boast youth, trickery and guts across the squad – bolstered by regular playing time given to Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson by American Leeds manager Jesse Marsch.
Acting as Leeds’ main destroyer in the middle of the park, Adams excels at reclaiming the ball and winning 50/50 duels before giving his side possession – while also providing a creative goal threat.
Aaronson, meanwhile, is also a key member of Leeds’ pressing unit up front – but his speed and tricks could also win free-kicks in dangerous areas. With 21 caps aged just 21 and 11 appearances during the qualifying campaign, the forward is likely to play an important role in Qatar.
Players in mind: Christian Pulisic
Pulisic, nicknamed Captain America back home, rose to stardom at Borussia Dortmund before joining Chelsea for £57.6million in 2019.
The striker was widely seen as the signing to replace Eden Hazard – who left Stamford Bridge after seven successful years at the club that same summer to join Real Madrid in a blockbuster £130million deal.
Pulisic seemed to catch glimpses of Hazard-like magic and had several hot streaks of form, but injuries hampered regular first-team runouts and the American has been a minor part-player for most of the past three full seasons.
Speculations about his future grew louder this summer as the 24-year-old reportedly sought more playing time ahead of the World Cup, but he remains a Chelsea player.
New Blues boss Graham Potter tested the 24-year-old in his first few games in charge, with the American making two goals in those games in just 78 minutes, meaning he could still secure a future at Stamford Bridge.
Pulisic has the ability and tenacity to outsmart opposition defenses and appears to lead a fluid, skillful and quick front line alongside Reyna and Aaronson
What the experts say:
Jamie Redknapp speaks on Sky Sports’ World Cup preview show: “I like Brenden Aaronson technically, he’s the kind of player we have to watch defensively.
“He goes in the pockets, picks up the ball and pushes people in. He’s going to be a threat and the US is going to have great energy.”
Jamie Carragher: “The excitement in the US is that the tournament is there four years later. It almost feels like a preparation for it.
“That’s going to be the tournament where they feel like it has to be a great tournament. All eyes will be on them and the host country usually do well. This is a really young side for them and they’re thinking in four years.”
“But I still think they will come out of this group. As Jamie just mentioned, the energy of the US national team could be too much.”
Opponent 3: Wales (November 29)
- FIFA Ranking: 19
- World Cup successes: Quarterfinals (1958)
All eyes are on their talisman Gareth Bale but several past and present Premier League players have recorded the best playing time in the squad during qualifying including Aaron Ramsey, Dan James, Ben Davies, Joe Rodon, Harry Wilson, Neco Williams and Kieffer Moore .
All the talk might have been about Bale and Ramsey or Moore’s aerial threat, but the basis of Wales’ success during qualifying was their defensive solidity.
Of the five nations in Group E, Wales finished fourth in open play goals, shots on goal and chances created in their eight games – but second for keeping goals under and keeping a clean sheet at the other end .
Players to watch: Gareth Bale
Time and time again, the ‘Welsh Wizard’ in the national colors has conjured up a moment of quality out of thin air and the 33-year-old was unsurprisingly instrumental in setting up the own goal against Ukraine that saw Wales secure a ticket to Qatar.
There were rumors that Bale would hang up his boots after Euro 2020, but the former Tottenham striker later reiterated his desire to reach a World Cup – and his dream was realized just a year later.
Bale inducted himself into the Galactico Hall of Fame when Real Madrid spent a world-record £85.3million to bring the forward from Spurs in 2013. An injury-plagued nine-year spell at Real saw the winger’s time at the club dry up.
But a loan to Tottenham in 2020/21 revealed flashes of his former self, while his vigor and brilliance have not faltered in representing his country over the years.
Bale joined MLS club Los Angeles FC this summer but has made just two starts and 369 minutes, made 11 appearances and scored three goals in the 2022 regular season. In the 128th minute, he scored the equalizer in the final of the MLS Cup as a substitute side wins the shootout.
But he was born for the world stage and his World Cup dream is finally realized in the twilight of his career.
What the experts say:
Jamie Carragher speaks on Sky Sports’ World Cup preview show: “You look at Wales and Gareth Bale, maybe a swan song for him – last we see him in a Wales shirt. For that reason, I’d like to see them pull through.”
Gary Neville speaks on Sky Sports’ World Cup Preview Show: “I’ve played a lot of games against the Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. They always come into the game with a lot more freedom and composure, while England put a lot of pressure on themselves.
“They have the fire in their stomachs that Scotland and Wales have for England than we have for them. The fans bring that with them too.
“It’s a game where you want to get your business done before you play Wales. It’s important for England to do well in the first two games.”
Jamie Redknapp speaks on Sky Sports’ World Cup Preview show: “It’s a terrible situation, you don’t want to go into the game against Wales without getting the best results because they’re going to fire.
“It’s almost more than a football game. You have to be controlled when you play against a team like Wales.”