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Their opponents will defend deep and with resolve, but we fancy the Three Lions to make a breakthrough in the opening 45 minutes.
Back England to win the first half of their clash with Iran on Monday (-110)
At World Cup 2018, England exceeded expectations by reaching the semi-finals. Few anticipated Gareth Southgate’s side performing well in Russia, but a young team (admittedly aided by a kind draw) became the first England side since 1990 to make it through to the last four. Building on that performance, the Three Lions were runners-up at Euro 2020 last summer.
Given their showings in the last two tournaments, it is right that the best online sportsbooks have England down as one of the favorites to triumph in Qatar. But the fear within the country is that Southgate’s side might now be on the way down and England’s best chance to win a first major trophy since 1966 may well have passed.
Results in the last 12 months have certainly raised questions. England were recently relegated to League B of the Nations League after failing to win any of their six matches against Germany, Italy and Hungary.
Even more frustrating was the final of the European Championship last year. England took the lead in the first minute, but instead of pressing home their advantage they sat back and invited Italy onto them. Southgate’s tendency towards caution has paid off on other occasions, but it proved costly at Wembley Stadium that day.
The manager would no doubt argue that his defense-minded tactics are necessary given the quality of the center-back options at his disposal. England could line up with a back three or a back four in Qatar, but defensive doubts will persist regardless of the exact formation.
Even so, England’s team still contains plenty of talent and they should be able to top Group B without too much trouble. Who knows, being written off ahead of the big kick-off might actually suit a side that has exceeded expectations before.
Carlos Queiroz is back for a second spell in charge of Iran, having been appointed to replace Dragan Skocic after Asia’s qualification campaign. Curiously, Alex Ferguson’s former assistant at Manchester United failed to qualify two different teams for World Cup 2022 - Colombia and Egypt - but he will be in Qatar regardless.
His return was not universally popular with Iran’s players, some of whom were sorry to see Skocic ditched just two months before the tournament. But now that the big kick-off is on the horizon, everyone involved with Team Melli is fully focused on the task at hand.
The objective is straightforward, even if achieving it will not be: reach the knockout phase of the World Cup for the first time ever. With England expected to get out of Group B, Iran will probably have to finish above both Wales and the United States in order to make it through to the round of 16.
Their approach will be based on a tight defense. Albeit under Skocic rather than Queiroz, Iran conceded only four goals in 10 matches in the final round of Asia’s qualification process.
The question, though, is whether they will be excessively cautious in Qatar. Iran must ensure they offer some sort of counter-attacking threat, rather than just sitting deep and packing men behind the ball.
In Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun, Iran have two talented attackers who are capable of causing problems for opposition defenses in Group B. In order to do so, however, Iran must get the ball to them.
If England turn in an unconvincing display on Monday, they will probably be criticized back home regardless of whether they win or not. That would be unfair. Previous World Cup campaigns have shown that the eventual champions often start slowly. France, for instance, were not particularly impressive in the group phase four years ago.
The nature of the opposition means that England may find it difficult to play free-flowing soccer, particularly as Southgate will have had less than a week to work with his players ahead of this match in Al Rayyan. Iran are a dogged, resolute team that excel at disrupting the rhythm of the team they are facing.
One thing that would make everything more straightforward for Southgate’s side is an early goal. The longer the game stays at 0-0, the more Iran will grow in confidence. If England can draw first blood in the first 45 minutes, it would force Queiroz’s side to push up the pitch and take more risks - maybe not immediately, but certainly before full-time.
England should therefore aim to make a fast start and overwhelm Iran in the first half. There is plenty of attacking quality within the ranks, even if the two spots either side of Harry Kane are still up for grabs. Back England to win the first half in the second match of the tournament.
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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