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Having been present at every edition of the tournament since 1990, the United States failed to qualify for World Cup 2018. It was a huge disappointment, but on the basis of their campaign, the USA did not deserve much more than a fifth-place finish in the final stage of the CONCACAF qualification process.
Led by Gregg Berhalter, they did not make the same mistake this time around. The USA were not exactly dominant in the final eight-team group, and it was only because of goal difference that they avoided the inter-confederation play-offs. But Berhalter’s side performed much better than Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena’s teams had in the previous campaign.
Doubts over Berhalter persist, but his emphasis on youth has been popular. Upon taking charge he ditched several veterans of the national team, including Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, and promoted some gifted youngsters in their stead. Of all 31 teams that qualified for World Cup 2022 (Qatar were not required to as hosts), none had a younger average age than the USA.
As a result, this is a side that is capable of playing high-tempo, high-energy soccer. On their way to glory at Gold Cup 2021, the USA pressed high and attacked at speed. They overwhelmed many of their opponents and only conceded one goal all tournament.
Yet it should be noted that the Gold Cup was played on home soil, and the USA has been much less effective in matches held overseas. Moreover, there are selection issues in the key positions of goalkeeper, center-back and center-forward.
And although the USA’s youth may prove to be a virtue, it could equally be part of their undoing. Leaving the Gold Cup to one side, this is a squad largely devoid of major tournament experience. That could be a factor, particularly in moments of adversity in Group B.
Wales are back at the World Cup for the first time since 1958, 16 years before their manager Rob Page was born. After qualifying for back-to-back European Championships in 2016 and 2020 (and reaching the semi-finals the first time around), the Dragons are now ready to show an even wider audience what they are made of.
Their path to Qatar was not easy. Wales finished second to Belgium in the group stage of Europe’s qualification process, sending them into the play-offs. Page’s side then beat Austria in the semi-finals, before overcoming Ukraine in the final to book their spot in the tournament.
Unsurprisingly, Gareth Bale was integral to their efforts in the play-offs; without him, Wales would almost certainly have missed out. The forward scored twice against Austria and then notched the winning goal against Ukraine, as he once again delivered when his country needed him most.
Bale finally called time on his Real Madrid career in the summer, but he has not played as much as expected at Los Angeles in MLS. Wales must hope he is fully fit and firing, starting with this crunch clash at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Monday.
Wales are not a one-man team. Bale’s fellow forwards, Daniel James and Brennan Johnson, both play for Premier League clubs, while midfielders Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey provide further quality, as does defender Ben Davies. But if Bale does not perform, Wales will be going home before the round of 16.
England are strong favorites with the best online sportsbooks to win Group B, while Iran are the outsider. As things stand the United States are given a marginally better chance of reaching the knockout phase than Wales, but it goes without saying that the outcome of this game will go a long way to determining which of the two has the advantage.
That could be good news for neutrals. A defeat would be a bad result for both teams - and in particular, the USA, who will face England next. That should encourage Berhalter and Page to go in search of a win on matchday one.
Both sides are most dangerous in transition, but we will probably see the USA have more of the ball. They should outnumber Wales in midfield, where they will probably have three men to their opponents’ two, while neither Allen nor Ramsey is particularly mobile. Wales will hope that their extra defender balances things out, but they could be vulnerable to quick transitions.
With Bale in the XI, though, Wales will always have a chance. Even if he is not operating at 100 percent capacity, the forward will be the most talented player on the pitch and the most likely to create something out of nothing. As far as the betting is concerned, our choice is both teams to find the back of the net.
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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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