Four nations pit their wits against each other in a Group where three countries will be confident of progressing, whilst the fourth presents as a side to be wary of on their day.
England occupies the favourite’s tag at 1.50 to qualify. USA and Wales? According to the bookmakers, that’s a straight shootout for second place. Can Wales and the Three Lions shake off recent international form as they touch down in Qatar? They’ll need to with a hungry American outfit nipping at their heels in the group.
European qualification was a breeze for Gareth Southgate’s England. Ten games, eight wins, and two draws. Few concerns, plenty of goals at the right end, and not too many at the wrong end. Only three, actually. Harry Kane finished as the top scorer in qualifying with 12 goals, bragging a 1.85 goals per90 strike rate.
The Spurs hitman (6) finished as the leading goal scorer in his last World Cup outing at the 2018 Russian instalment, in what was Southgate’s first major tournament. It would turn out to be the first of two occasions in the head coach’s major tournament appearances (2018 World Cup and 2020 European Championships) where his side has reached the last four.
So, all sunshine and rainbows heading into Qatar, then? Certainly not. The Nations League schedule that followed grew into a stretch of games harbouring the polar opposite form. Three defeats and three draws ensured relegation from a Nations League group that failed to witness a single victory.
The 0-4 Hungary loss at Wembley tells a tale of a side lacking all over the pitch and a head coach beginning to face scrutiny from the supporters that adoringly screamed his name on the terraces before and after the Euro 2022 final defeat to Italy.
Now, Southgate will aim to get one better than a final appearance despite poor form at international level. Nevertheless, that is a huge ask, given England have only progressed past the World Cup quarter-final stage twice since lifting the trophy in 1966.
Never have Iran progressed past the group stage of a FIFA World Cup. They’ve had five attempts at it, with Qatar being the sixth. Nevertheless, a hopeful Iranian nation will have pencilled a Round of 16 fixture on their wall charts, with the small matter of three handy countries to gazump first.
Iran’s primary issue in World Cups gone by has been finding the net. With just nine goals in 15 appearances in FIFA’s international competition, Iran’s 0.6 goals per game ratio is the lowest of any country to play ten or more matches.
In the qualifying stages, goals weren’t a problem. A 1.50 goals scored per90 ratio decked out Iran’s goal-laden Round 3. Not only did they find the net more often than not whilst amassing eight wins, but the Iranians kept it tight at the back.
The four goals against from 7.2xG suggests Iran rode their luck a little, something they’ll likely need to do from November through to December. Another area they’ll need to attempt to upkeep is the pressing intensity shown in qualifying. The 7.35 PPDA (passes per defensive action) was trumped only by South Korea in Round 3, as Iran harassed and harried opponents in forward areas.
To have a chance at progression, Iran’s most influential players will have to take their opportunities when they come. Mehdi Taremi will be vital to any slight hopes of a Round of 16 berth. The Porto frontman managed four goals in six qualifying appearances, a needed purple patch of form that’ll be crucial to quell any desire for knockout football.
At 20/1, Iran will need to pull off a mini-miracle to reach the four points likely required for them to be in the conversation after the group stages. If they do, the Netherlands should take the shape of the Round of 16 opponents.
There was no travelling American contingent when Russia opened its doors to the FIFA World Cup, but they’re back. It’s the USA’s eleventh World Cup, reaching the knockout stages on three of the last four appearances.
USA finished level on points with Costa Rica in qualifying, though goal difference would act as a deciding factor, sending Costa Rica to an inter-continental play-off decider.
Wales will be the first opponent for the USA, meeting at the Ahmed bin Ali Stadium on the 21st of November. The two nations have met once before, playing out a 0-0 bore draw in 2020. The landscape of the group proposes that the runners-up spot should be a scrap between Wales and the USA.
If England conduct themselves like they should at this level, the top spot will be wrapped up. However, it would take a brave person to confidently make the call between the Welsh and Gregg Berhalter’s USA. Worryingly for any American support in Qatar, the USA have only kept two clean sheets in the last 27 matches at the FIFA World Cup, letting in 46 goals during the tournament.
In the CONCACAF best eleven of qualifying, Christian Pulisic and central defender Walker Zimmerman were the two standout USA players to make the cut. The Chelsea forward tied with Jonathon David’s five goals at the end of the third round. In addition, Zimmerman emerged as America’s best-performing centre-back at the back, grabbing a goal and an assist alongside impressive commanding displays.
Gareth Bale’s 34th-minute strike downed the Ukrainians in the World Cup Qualifying play-off decider. That would be his sixth in seven outings on the road to Qatar. The Ukraine decider came after a brace in the play-off semi-final against Austria, as Wales cruised to a 2-1 win.
It would be cruel to imply Bale dragged Wales to Qatar single-handedly, given the performance levels of the Welsh squad, but he certainly played a leading role as he often does in a Welsh shirt. His herculean efforts have ensured Wales heads to their second-ever World Cup, 64 years after their last.
Proving Wales is not just a one-man band was Daniel James (4), Harry Wilson (4), and Aaron Ramsey (3), who were next in line in terms of goal contributions for their country. The 11.90 shots per90 average in qualifying, which Wales served up, was the mid-range for all participants, as Group B opponent England’s 16.10 ranked them near the top.
Wales navigated qualification losing just one game against eventual winners and heavy favourites to do so, Belgium. A record of W3/D3 fended off a capable Czech Republic for the second spot and ushered The Dragons into the play-offs to knick two more international scalps. They’ve proven they can beat sturdy European opposition. Now it’s the USA and Iran they’ll have to target to overcome in a testing climate.
Similarly to England, Wales endured a rotten Nations League campaign as a backdrop to the World Cup. Five losses from six populated the Nations League group, although, with the competition including Poland, Belgium, and the Netherlands, it was never going to be plain sailing.
England have a heavy reliance on Harry Kane and they’ll likely need the captain to lead the way with some important World Cup goals once more. Kane to score a few goals during the group stages seems like an attractive route to go.
If England are to find goals during the group stages, it is likely that the Spurs man is going to be the person to get them. Afterall, he did score almost one third of the Three Lions’ goals during qualifying, and he has the experience of landing the golden boot in Russia. As well as that, he was England’s top scorer when they reached the final of Euro 2020 before falling just short.
Group B – Harry Kane to score 3+ goals in the group stages
How and where to watch each match:
ENG vs IRN – 21st November – 13:00 (BBC One)
USA vs WAL – 21st November – 19:00 (ITV)
WAL vs IRN – 25th November – 10:00 (BBC One)
ENG vs USA – 25th November – 19:00 (ITV)
IRN vs USA – 29th November – 19:00 (BBC TBC)
WAL vs ENG – 29th November – 19:00 (BBC One)