England captain Harry Kane has spoken confidently ahead of his side’s World Cup opener against Iran, stating: “We’ve been trending well in major tournaments so there’s only one more step to take”. The 1966 World Cup winners have endured more than 50 years of hurt on the international stage since that famous triumph, but have shown a desire for cup glory by reaching the tournament’s semi-finals four years ago and the final of Euro 2020.
The Three Lions arrive here as one of the competition favourites then, with Gareth Southgate’s men breezing through the qualification phase to book their place at the finals. England avoided defeat in all ten matches (W8, D2) whilst scoring a scintillating 39 goals and conceding just three; that was the best group-stage goal difference for any European qualifier (+36).
Some torrid recent form threatens to unhinge England’s World Cup bid however, with the side winless in their last six matches (D3, L3), something that subsequently saw them suffer UEFA Nations League relegation. None of their measly four goals across that run arrived before half-time, handing ammunition to Southgate’s critics who accuse the 52-year-old of being too conservative with his initial gameplan.
The odds were firmly stacked against Iran making it to their third straight World Cup finals after they ended 2019 with successive second-round qualifying defeats. However, the pandemic allowed them to hit the reset button and make some crucial changes, one of which was replacing manager Marc Wilmots with Dragan Skočić. Under his stewardship, they went on to win their four remaining second-round games and eight out of ten matches (D1, L1) in round three.
Despite Skočić’s relative success, Carlos Queiroz was elected to lead Iran into this World Cup and he’s made a steady start during his second stint in charge, going undefeated across his opening three matches (W2, D1) before suffering defeat in their final warm-up game against Tunisia on Wednesday. He’ll now be hoping a positive result in this clash in Doha can set his side up to progress out of the group stage for the very first time and give fans back home something to cheer about amid the continuing civil unrest.
Players to watch: England’s Kane scored two of their most recent four goals and is chasing history here as he hopes to become the first player to be a top/joint-top scorer in two separate World Cups. No Iran player was involved in more goals during third-round Asian World Cup qualifying than Mehdi Taremi (G4, A2), who also secured two goals and one assist across his last three club appearances.
Hot stat: England have scored 12 of their last 18 World Cup goals from set-pieces.