England manager Gareth Southgate, increasingly looking like the helpless protagonist of the Hangman game, will need his team to play an enterprising game and deliver a positive result in its World Cup opener against Iran to stop the noose from tightening further.
A contract running till December 2024 has offered Southgate no measures of comfort with recent results – a winless Nations League run -- and a lack of imagination in play robbing him of all the goodwill that a run to EURO final had offered last year. The manager, further handicapped by the injury-absence of Chelsea wing-back pairing of Reece James and Ben Chilwell, has a lot to worry about his defence with Harry Maguire struggling for form and the ever-dependable Kyle Walker yet to recover.
Upfront, Harry Kane – England’s captain – would be Southgate’s key man with Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka operating from the wide areas in a 3-4-3 system. With Leicester City’s James Maddison and Manchester City’s Kalvin Phillips doubtful after missing out on training, England might benefit from the inclusion of 19-year-old Jude Bellingham, who can bring the fearlessness of youth to spread fear in the Iranian ranks alongside the measured and experienced Declan Rice.
Managed by former Manchester United and Real Madrid coach Carlos Queiroz for the third time in a World Cup, Iran’s attacking threat will come from Mehdi Taremi, who has 28 goals in 60 appearances, as Bayer Leverkusen forward Sardar Azmoun – the Iranian Messi – is yet to recover from a calf injury suffered in October.
Queiroz, known for his safety-first approach, might pack his midfield in a 4-5-1 system in a bid to disallow England any space to dictate the game. In Alireza Jahanbakhsh and skipper Ehsan Hajsafi, playing his 122nd international game, Team Melli has enough experience to threaten the confidence-worn English defence.
The 20th ranked team in the world will be no pushovers in this first international encounter between these nations with frosty diplomatic ties.