15/04/2024

England's Raheem Sterling (left) and Bukayo Saka (right) celebrate (Photo: England Twitter)

England have put its tournament demons behind it with an attacking blitz overwhelming Iran 6-2 in front of over 45,000 fans in Qatar.

In a World Cup that has been marred by many issues surrounding the host country, it would be remiss to forget how England’s last appearance in a major international tournament concluded.

After reaching the penalty shootout in the Euro Final against Italy, England’s Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka were subjected to vile racist abuse through social media, triggered by footballing disappointment but focused on the colour of their skin.

Going into the match, Iran has also been facing its own social unrest at home, with protests about the treatment of women and their right of practicing their religion how they see fit a contentious issue. The position of the Iranian players was clear when they did not sing their own national anthem and even clearer for the fans who booed their own anthem while applauding their players and their stance.

The Three Lions were able to shake off the disappointment of the past to qualify for the World Cup, but Gareth Southgate’s side found itself entering Qatar 2022 on the back of a six-game winless run. Coming up against Iran though, England was always going to have control of the match, “cautious” Carlos Queiroz earning his nickname by how his sides stubbornly set up to frustrate opponents while remaining dangerous on the counter.

The match kicked off as expected, with Iran allowing England the ball, but at the same time attempting to force its opposition wide and away from the box. Any momentum England built early was erased when friendly fire forced goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand off the pitch with concussion after two lengthy stoppages.

Beianvand’s substitution did not only mean the absence of a solid shot-stopper for Iran, but also an attacking threat with the goalkeeper’s infamous long throws often surpassing half away and sparking counterattacks.

With the game restarting England once again found its rhythm, with suggestions it will find it hard to break down Iran seemingly laughable when both Mason Mount and Harry Maguire went inches away from opening the scoring for their side, the latter seeing his effort hit the crossbar.

With the Three Lions dominating the midfield but being forced wide, quality delivery into the box was always going to be crucial to any success. Luke Shaw managed to do what he does so well for his country, receiving the ball high on the left side and picking a teammate in the box, this time Jude Bellingham, whose header left substitute goalkeeper Hossein Hosseini helpless.

The young midfielder opened the scoring and his own account for his country while becoming England’s second youngest ever goalscorer at a World Cup, the first being Michael Owen in France 1998.

The saying goes that when it rains it pours and that was the case for Iran, whose objective of frustrating England becoming obsolete after conceding just over half an hour into the encounter. 10 minutes later, England had breached Iran’s net two more times, Bukayo Saka volleying Harry Maguire’s headed assist from a corner truly before Raheem Sterling did superbly well to remain onside and finish off a well-placed Harry Kane cross.

Queiroz entered the second half with damage limitation in mind, making a triple sub in the break. England continued its dominance early in the second half, but obviously comfortable with the scoreline.

Around the hour mark, keen on continuing to stake his starting XI claim, Bukayo Saka received the ball on the left before cutting in and bamboozling three defenders and recording England’s fourth goal with a low, far-post finish.

Moments later, a good piece of interplay by Iran led to forward Mehdi Tameri giving Team Melli something to cheer about with a strong shot over the reach of Jordan Pickford.

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Saka’s eventual substitution gave fellow 2021 Euro Final villain Marcus Rashford a chance to turn himself into a hero and he duly delivered only seconds after coming on, scoring with his first opportunity to make it five goals for the Three Lions.

Asian opposition may be easily dismissed by European football fans, but it is crucial to remember that Iran has not conceded more than two goals since January 2019, when it conceded three against Japan in the Asian Cup Semi-final.

Finding the back of the net five times in 70 minutes is some achievement for England, whose ability to score at ease will no doubt frighten their upcoming opposition.

As the 90 minutes were wrapping up, substitute Callum Wilson caught Iran out with his pace before unselfishly cutting the ball back for felling second-half change Jack Grealish, the latter making no mistake tapping in England’s sixth goal to make the Three Lions’ six winless games coming into the tournament a long forgotten memory.

10 minutes of added time saw Iran get awarded a penalty through VAR intervention with Mehdi Tameri making no mistake to grab his second goal for the day.

The England players went into the sheds at full time with the complete opposite scenario from its Euro Final penalty shootout. Instead of being tormented by their fans, some of the players that experienced the despair were instrumental in dismantling a stubborn opponent that was meant to be a thorn in their team’s side.

The celebrations showed how much it meant to every member of the squad and that will hopefully be education enough for the ignorant abusers of 2021 to not only accept these men as players but as proud English internationals.

The one concern for England heading into its game with the USA is the injury to center back Harry Maguire, who despite being much-maligned at club level is always a top performer for his country.

Meanwhile, Iran will be fighting its own uphill battle to have goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand available when it takes on Wales, with anything but a win being potentially catastrophic.

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