While all four teams had managers who have a history of adopting pragmatic, safety-first football, the group offered some exciting football and plenty of goals (16). Barring Wales, every other team lived up to its pre-tournament billing.
England waltzed through Iran, which came in under a cloud of controversy and uncertainty before the game, to put down an early marker. England had five different scorers with the teenage midfielder Jude Bellingham showing why there was so much clamour around him. Under-fire boss Gareth Southgate once again played the right cards when it came to international tournament management, as England sailed through the group stages with a near-perfect record. Crucially, Southgate was able to give game time to key members of the squad ahead of the knockouts. The goalless draw against the USA, however, exposed England’s weakness and lack of control in midfield as the cross-Atlantic rival overran the team repeatedly.
With the second-youngest squad in this World Cup, the USA had plenty of industry and energy in its football but the goals were lacking. It needed a win in the final game against Iran to ensure qualification and Christian Pulisic was once again the man to deliver the big moment. While the USMNT struggled to score up front, it made things difficult for the opponents to score against it either.
Iran and its players were in a position of having to deal with the rising tensions back home and having to step out on the field to play football. The thrilling win against Wales will be remembered for a long time to come but Team Melli will feel it was a chance missed after failing to get a point against the USA.
Wales’ 64-year wait for a second-ever World Cup appearance was not one to remember on the pitch. Senior stars Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey didn’t have much significant influence as they have done so in the past.
Best goal — Marcus Rashford vs Wales
England needed a moment of quality to break the deadlock in the game against Wales and up stepped Rashford from a free-kick 30 yards away from goal. The forward’s conversion rate from free-kicks hasn’t been the best in recent years — his last successful effort coming in the League Cup for Manchester United against Chelsea in 2019.
From the left, Rashford was always going to prefer going for a favoured pace and power to the right side of the goal, rather than lifting it over the wall and bending it into the top corner. Wales goalkeeper Danny Ward would have thought for a flittering millisecond that he was in with a chance to stop that effort but the power with which Rashford packed that shot, there was no stopping from Ward.
Best player — Tyler Adams
The youngest captain in the World Cup, Tyler Adams has led a youthful USA both on and off the pitch. Adams set the tone for the States in central midfield with his energetic running and tough tackling. The 23-year-old covered the most distance for a USMNT player in the three matches in the group stages.
Adams has been instrumental in breaking down opposition attacks with his reading of the game and helping the team move forward with his crisp distribution in play. The USA had the best defensive record in the group having conceded just one goal — which came from a penalty in the opening game — and limiting both England and Iran to an xG of under 0.5.
Away from the pitch, too, Adams has shown incredible maturity in answering difficult questions in the lead-up to the crunch clash against Iran.
Best match — Iran 2-0 Wales
After the 6-2 thrashing in the opening game, not many expected Iran to bounce back the way it did against Wales in the next match. Iran, which was known for its doggedness under coach Carlos Queiroz, adopted a more direct attacking approach with Sardar Azmoun returning to lead the line.
This game had everything — from posts being rattled, chances being squandered, a red card, and two late goals. Wales’ keeper Wayne Hennessey was sent off in the 86th minute for a dangerous challenge outside his box, which allowed Iran to pile on the pressure in the last few minutes. But when it seemed a lost opportunity, Iran pulled out a late winner courtesy a superbly placed hit from distance by Rouzbeh Cheshmi in the 98th minute — the final minute of added time. Three minutes later, Ramin Razaelan then set off the celebrations with a second goal on the counterattack to seal the win.
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