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Group B

 

Soccer vs Football, Geo-political matchups, and a British derby. According to FIFA rankings, Group B is the so-called group of death - but on paper it doesn't seem that way.

All teams will be ranked within the top 22 sides in the World. Iran are consistent performers in qualifying but have never got out of the group stage at a World Cup – however this generation is arguably their best. USA return having missed out on the 2018 World Cup and have some exciting young players, spearheaded by Christian Pulisic. As for England, failure to perform with their Golden Generation is a distant memory. A new exciting young generation with no fear has come close in recent tournaments. Wales make their first appearance at a World Cup since 1958 thanks to talisman Gareth Bale & goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey heroics. So, it’s that age old question, can England become World Champions? Can Iran make the last 16? Are the USA ready to return to the world stage ahead of their own World Cup in 2026? Who will win the Battle of Britain? Group B will have plenty of sub-text, that’s for sure.

 

Wales

Enter the Dragons – the best play is team-play. Gorau chwarae cyd-chware.

It has been 64 years since the Welsh Dragons last qualified for the World Cup. Qualifying campaign after qualifying campaign came and went. It has taken leadership from the late Gary Speed, Chris Coleman and now Robert Page to build a side more than a sum of its parts. They have already been a part of two European championships, most famously beating Belgium with an excellent goal by Hal Robson Kanu on route to the European semi-finals.

Goalkeepers Wayne Hennessey and Danny Ward have performed strongly in goal, the latter now first choice for Leicester City (although has struggled for the club side); the former keeping out a Ukraine side which had global support. Aaron Ramsey has had a high-profile career playing at Arsenal, Juventus, Rangers and now Lille despite a range of injury problems and he is still capable of providing spontaneous and high-quality assists as he did against Belgium in the Nations League. Kieffer Moore of promoted Bournemouth is a significant presence up front; scoring 8 goals for his side – not bad for someone starting out at Truro City. Gareth Bale is the jewel in the Welsh crown; his threats from set pieces has earned his team a platform to win games from. And although the likes of Bale, Ramsey or Hennessey will reach their first and most likely their last World Cups, there is a younger generation coming through. Brennan Johnson is the young starlet to watch out for – promoted with Nottingham Forest last season and scoring his debut goal against, yes you guessed it, Belgium, has scored 19 goals in 51 appearances – this coupled with Fulham’s on-loan player Daniel James’s pace and goal threat means Wales may be not as reliant upon Gareth Bale this winter. Under the tutelage of Antonio Conte, Ben Davies has formed as part of a stronger defence at Tottenham Hotspur and will be relied upon to bring his experience. Tyler Roberts, David Brooks, Harry Wilson (also a set piece specialist) suggests the future is in good hands too. What is for sure is that Rob Page and his charges won’t be in Qatar to make up the numbers.

So, what are their chances in the World Cup?

Well winning the World Cup would be the most outstanding achievement ever made in its history. But they won’t look at this group with any fear. All games in the group are winnable, including neighbours England, who despite losing narrowly 2-1 in the Euro 2016 Group stage, managed to top the group ahead of them. Joining the World Cup party was more than their fans could dream for – and they may enjoy the ride but this time around it may end at the group stage.

Verdict: Group stage (4th - 2 points)

Manager: Rob Page (Wales) was second in command to Ryan Giggs when he was asked to take the helm under mitigating circumstances – he just signed a new deal too. Wales have a tight knit squad built on high team chemistry, Page himself hasn’t managed at the highest of levels previously being employed by Port Vale and Northampton Town before heading to the Welsh under 21’s. Page likes to use width in his teams with wing-backs and attacking forwards, which he can do with the likes of Daniel James, Bale and the emerging Brennan Johnson. Kieffer Moore now provides a focal point up front. “I'm so proud of the guys, they thoroughly deserved it. The one thing these boys were missing was a World Cup and now we've got there. When you see what these guys do in training, I had full trust in them."

Key players: Gareth Bale is unsurprisingly their key player and has secured regular football with MLS outfit LAFC after a topsy-turvy period at Real Madrid. He, along with an outstanding performance from goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, pipped Ukraine to the World Cup, the first after 64 long years which in turn eclipsed the previous record held by Egypt and Norway. On the international stage, Bale scored in all three group matches in Euro 2016 and will look to do the same again this time. Ben Davies will need to provide defensive leadership to provide Wales a platform to win games.

 

England

3 Lions entering the global stage once again, but not in form.

Ah England. The year – 1998. The game - England vs Argentina. It evokes memories of Michael Owen dribbling past the Argentina team before dispatching a stunning goal into the top corner, only at the age of 18, writing himself into World Cup folklore. Ever since then, the media and the English footballing public alike expected World Cup Wins like the weatherman forecasting rain. But even Beckham & co. couldn’t get through the quarter finals in a Golden Generation era. Nor get through a penalty shootout. Our expectations hit rock bottom as we were dismantled by Germany in 2010 (VAR was conspicuous by its absence) and came last in the group stage in 2014. Then came Sam Allardyce. A few days later, then came Gareth Southgate, formerly of Middlesbrough and famous for a penalty miss. Then a new exciting fearless generation comes through. First a euphoric penalty shootout win against Columbia. Then a world Cup Semi-Final in 2018. And most recently a Euros Final in 2021, only just missing out on silverware - yes to a penalty shootout. But look at the talent - Phil Foden, Declan Rice, Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham, Jack Grealish, Raheem Sterling, Trent Alexander Arnold and Mason Mount. England did have about 7 genuine top-class right backs before a titanic injury crisis (TAA, Kyle Walker, Reece James, James Justin, Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker-Peters, Aaron Wan-Bissaka). Who can also forget 2018 Golden Boot winner Harry Kane – England’s captain and talisman.

But then comes the Nations League, beaten convincingly by Hungary – twice and then relegation. The defensive vulnerabilities are palpable. Can Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford maintain his international form after Pope’s nervous run? What centre back pairing does England go with – does Southgate go with youth such as Mark Guehi & Ben White or with the experience of John Stones and Harry Maguire who don’t always perform at club level. If Harry Kane is injured who will replace him upfront? Tammy Abraham, Olly Watkins, Ivan Toney, Callum Wilson, Jarred Bowen are all in the running. That is what Gareth Southgate will have to figure out and I don’t envy him! A change this time around will be the National anthem following the ascension of King Charles III.

So, what are their chances in the World Cup?

Pessimism is usually part of England fan’s DNA but when it comes to the World Cup eternal optimism persists even in the presence of blatant inadequacy. Group B, according to FIFA rankings is the most difficult. England have never beaten the USA at the World Cup. England have never faced Iran and a potential British derby was probably the most awkward pick from Pot 4. And centre back positions don’t fill England fans with complete optimism. There’s a horrible feeling that England may return to early tournament exits too…

England haven’t timed their run well this time. Last 16 exit beckons against the Netherlands.

Verdict: Group B runners up (5 points) Last 16
 
Manager: Gareth Southgate (England) – What Gareth Southgate has done with England hasn’t been seen perhaps since Terry Venables in 1996. Creating a club atmosphere for England has been transformative. He is concerned at the playing time of key players: “It is not ideal, but we feel they have been, and can be, important player for us. It is not a perfect situation but there is still a lot of football to be played for Qatar.”
 
Key player: Harry Kane – Where there are arguably replacements for the likes of Trent Alexander Arnold and Phil Foden, it’s unclear whether anyone can replace Captain Kane; who has 50 goals for his nation at the time of writing. 12 goals and 8 assists this season and 6 goals at the last World Cup. No player has won consecutive World Cup Golden Boots, but no one would bet against it this time.

Iran

Iran turn back to Queiroz for World Cup success…

Iran clinched its spot in Qatar as winner of Asia’s qualifying group - only losing once. This is Iran’s 6th World Cup and making it out the group stage will be the goal. Iran were resolute and stubborn 4 years ago, beating Morocco and drawing with Portugal. But it wasn’t enough in 2018 but they will see this group surely as more favourable. Group B presents an intriguing challenge – Iran have never faced England before. They famously have met the USA before in one of the most politically charged fixtures in World Cup history, coming out on top 2-1. The Iranian media officer at the time had an unenviable job: "According to FIFA regulations team B should walk towards team A for the pre-match handshakes, but Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei gave express orders that the Iranian team must not walk towards the Americans." A compromise was made as Mehrdad Massoudi FIFA media officer Mehrdad Massoudi continued "The president of the Iranian Federation wanted to use the match to show his country in the best possible light," says Masoudi. "He asked the kit man to buy a bunch of flowers for every player to take onto the pitch. They were white roses, a symbol of peace in Iran." The two sides also came together for a joint team photo in order to reduce tensions. "We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years," said US defender Jeff Agoos at the time. USA were eliminated from the French World Cup but may have achieved so much more off the pitch in that match.

 Away from history, this is a talented Iran side in terms of an attacking threat; Sardar Azmoun plays for Bayer Leverkusen, Mehdi Taremi plays for Porto. Feyenoord’s Alireza Jahanbakhsh, formerly of Brighton is capable of putting the ball in the back of the net too. At the back, however players ply their trade in lesser-known leagues. One Goalkeeper Alireza Safar Beiranvand plays for Boavista in Portugal but isn’t a starter; the other goalkeeper Amir Abedzadeh does play regularly but in Spain’s second division.

So, what are their chances in the World Cup?

There’s certainly a case for Iran to be competitive with its best generation of players, how the 2018 World cup went and playing in a home continent - and they are possibly best placed out of the Middle Eastern sides to qualify. They could conceivably make the last 16. They will certainly need to better prepare than previous World Cups where they have never got out of the group stage. I think their warmup game against Uruguay showed that they will have a gameplan that will frustrate their Group B rivals who are all out of form. Didn’t expect that prediction did you?

Verdict: Group B Winners (1st – 6 points) Quarter Final

Manager: Carlos Queiroz (Portugal) It’s been quite the managerial merry-go-round for Iran. Head coach Dragan Skočić took over the Iran national team in February 2020 (replacing Mark Wilmots) after the squad got off to a slow start in the second round of Asian qualifying. The Croatian turned Iran’s fortunes around immediately, leading Team Melli to seven straight wins. However Dragan was sacked 4 months prior to the tournament (before being briefly rehired – yes you read that correctly) leaving Iran scrambling to find a replacement - Carlos Queiroz, former manager, will lead Iran to November's World Cup finals – his 4th World Cup.

Former manager Dragan Skočić was bullish about his team’s chances: “…we have a lot of players who are playing in Europe and also they can fight, with total respect for others, but they can fight to get through and qualify from this group. People will also try to say we know conditions in Qatar better and that will be an advantage. But the real advantage we have is that we have a lot of players who will be in their second or third World Cup. We are ranked No 1 in Asia, but this is not important.”

Key players: Left back and central defensive midfielder Eshan Hajsafi has served as Iran’s captain throughout World Cup qualifying and has earned over a century of caps for Team Mejii, the most of any active player. Playing for AEK Athens in the Greek Super League, Hajsafi appeared for Iran at the 2014 and 2018 World Cups and offers considerable experience. With 40 goals in just 62 caps, Sardar Azmoun is Iran’s current leading goal scorer and led the squad with 10 goals in World Cup qualifying. The forward moved to Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen during the January transfer window and is Iran’s all-time leading scorer in the UEFA Champions League, netting six goals during his time with Russia’s Zenit Saint Petersburg. In 29-year-old Porto striker Mehdi Taremi, who has scored 21 times last season for club and country (and 6 times in 8 games for his club side) Iran have a bona fide goal threat – despite rumours of a fall-out with the manager last year.

 

 

USA

USA re-join the World Cup party…

Another big nation to have missed out on the 2018 World Cup, USMNT make their welcome return to the fold in Qatar. Ranked 16th in the world, USA boast some talented players plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues. Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic is the star man and first made his presence known with Borussia Dortmund. Augsburg’s Ricardo Pepi is tipped to lead upfront. Dortmund’s Reyna is likely to start, having struggled with injury last season. RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams will sit in front of an MLS duo including Atlanta’s Miles Robinson and Nashville’s Walker Zimmerman (Captain). Valencia’s Yunus Musah who played for England’s youth teams could also start – he made over 20 appearances last season in La Liga as a right winger.

Goalkeepers could be a concern with neither Zack Steffen or Matt Turner starting for their clubs come the World Cup (Manchester City and Arsenal respectively). Manager Berhalter seemed less concerned: “We are comfortable with our goalkeeping pool” he said. “Overall, the goalkeeper position is in a good spot…”. Zack Steffen, currently on loan at EFL Championship side Middlesbrough is confident: “I see myself as the number one.” Steffen said. “It’s my spot to lose.”

Many pundits have tipped the US to get through the group and a few to top it so confidence is not short in supply. Juventus playmaker Weston McKennie had also been hampered by injury earlier this year but has scored 9 times since his national team debut in 2017 and made the scoresheet vs PSG in the Champions League this season - his versatiliyt will be helpful in Group B. Lille’s Timothy Weah is another high-profile player but has only started a third of the time for his club. Fulham’s Left back Antonee Robinson is also a goal-threat whilst Sergiño Dest is a technical full-back who signed for Italian giants AC Milan in the summer and was part of the USA side that won CONCACAF Nations League in 2019/20.

But it is Leeds United's Brenden Aaronson who has caught the attention of fans and looks like he could be a key player upfront. Premier League all time goalscoring hero Alan Shearer was full of praise: “Very, very good play again from Aaronson,” he told Amazon Prime. “The way he glides past players. When you’ve got a player like that who can drag your team 15 or 20 yards up the pitch like that. Aaronson, so enthusiastic with that ball, isn’t he. So passionate at taking care of that ball, the way he glides with it. It looks very easy for him to go past players with his body shape.”

Pulisic and Mason Mount, Chelsea teammates, already discussed their excitement about the match-up. Former England right back Gary Neville has already outlined the emotional matchups each team will bring with USA being the most difficult game. Wales are up first though, at only their second ever World Cup – that may set the tone for the USA who will be hosts themselves in 4 years’ time.

So, what are their chances in the World Cup?

As long as key players remain injury-free, they will be a tough match for anyone – so they could conceivably finish anywhere from the group stage to the quarter-finals. There may be twists and turns in the group, but you’d back them to pick up 3 points at least somewhere. Pundits deem this side as a youthful one with one eye on the 2026 World Cup in the USA itself. A bold prediction but they may just not have enough.

Verdict: Group stage (3rd - 2 points)

Manager: Gregg Berhalter (USA) – Berhalter has now made it to the World Cup both as a player and manager. He also had managed Columbus Crew since 2013, reaching the playoffs four times and making the 2015 MLS Cup Final. There are rumblings of concern that his team have not faced some of the top World nations though. The highest ranked opposition aside from Mexico the US have faced in recent years included a September 2019 draw at home against Uruguay and a 2-1 loss against Switzerland in May 2021. Organising friendlies against top-tier opposition will be key.

“It was a full-on party” coach Gregg Berhalter confessed when asked by CBS Sports what the mood of the locker room had been. “These guys earned it. They deserve it.”

And when Group B was drawn the manager was confident about his team’s chances of qualifying: “We think it's a good group. Every opponent in the World Cup is difficult" Berhalter told the BBC.

"With England it's an exciting match-up, Iran are a diverse opponent who did well in qualifying.” and “Wales is a solid team, an athletic team, they don’t give much off of the back, it’s going to be a very difficult game.”

Key players: Christian Pulisic – Pulisic could be the difference in Group B; the former Dortmund ma­­n has been in fine form for the national team but much like his US teammates, injuries have curtailed his opportunities as well as former manager Thomas Tuchel, he will be hoping for more appearances with new man at the helm Graham Potter in the limited time before the big tournament. Brenden Aaronson is a dangerous creator and attacking threat as shown in his time for Leeds United in the Premier League.

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