Friday, December 2, 2022

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Bellingham inspires England in World Cup opener against Iran

England show they have a little more under their belts, even if it’s not under One Love armbands.

The bubbly Jew Bellingham sparked a 6-2 win over Iran to signal development in the team and ensure everything went on the pitch with encouraging ease.

The problems of the Nations League were forgotten, made irrelevant. It may be too early to speak of a World Cup given the poverty of crisis-stricken Iran, but Gareth Southgate’s side have now announced their candidacy with England’s best-ever opening win. That’s why the players never really cared about the current results – and they clearly enjoyed it here. Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka certainly had a better time than their last tournament game, both showing why they should stay with the team, the Arsenal man showing why he needs to stay up front.

Troubles for Fifa and Qatar, meanwhile, only continue. It was the third day in a row that the many off-field issues dominated the agenda at this absurd World Cup. Fifa’s stubborn threat to punish teams with sporting sanctions for the OneLove armband led the Football Association to cave in, which resulted in Harry Kane wearing the bland “No Discrimination” armband, but only helped the whole thing to stir things up even more. The governing body could perhaps have paid more attention to its ticketing system given the collapse of the application that made access difficult for so many fans. It was just another logistical issue at this tournament, alongside all the more serious concerns some of the Iranian fans were voicing.

A different Fifa regime might have banned the Asian team from the tournament given the treatment of women as well as the story of supplying drones to Russia and it resulted in fans booing their own national anthem and players refusing to sing it to sing.

That was really a boner.

It’s impossible to ignore the potential impact on Carlos Queiroz’s squad. They were a team that played under immense pressure and in the state’s focus.

Some have attempted to speak out, or have said as much as they can.

All that unrest would only have been made worse by goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand’s concussion, not that his substitute Seyed Hossein Hosseini could have done much against either goal.

The only thing that can be said for certain is that this was not a Queiroz defense as we know it. Before that, he had conceded just seven goals and kept five clean sheets in ten World Cup appearances with Portugal and Iran.

There was no sign of such cohesion here.

However, that was not England’s concern. You didn’t even have to be that adventurous to open up Iran.

This was one of the most notable elements of the game. Despite the size of the goal line, England have been patient and precise rather than expansive or rampant.

It showed why having Bellingham on the team is so helpful. That’s another reason why every big club in Europe wants the teenager.

He gives England extra oomph in midfield and better connects the different parts of the team with his willingness to drive forward. This isn’t meant to belittle Kalvin Phillips, who has been so effective for England, but the Manchester City midfielder plays more prosaically. Bellingham gives Southgate something else that the team had been missing.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen an England midfielder walk like the 19-year-old, driving home Luke Shaw’s beautiful cross in the manner of a Paul Scholes or Bryan Robson. Comparisons only go so far, however, as Bellingham is very much his own type of player. That was a great ending.

After that the game was won. Queiroz’s Iran would never have the capacity to improve after their game plan rumbled. They just couldn’t apply any pressure and allowed Harry Maguire forgiving play to bounce back. He read everything for a long time and initiated everything. It was his pass that triggered the train for Bellingham.

It was his presence in the box that created the space for Saka’s first goal. While Iran may have complained about some of the contact, only Maguire returned what he could have been punished for earlier.

Saka scored with a solid volley, the beautiful finish into the net perhaps trumped Enner Valencia’s header as the best goal of a short tournament so far. It was at this time that England was at its best, as it sensed that Iran might collapse. Raheem Sterling quickly made it 3-0 from Harry Kane’s ball at the end of another fine play.

It was all too easy when Saka slalomed for the fourth time. Sterling has set it up but it’s possible a decision will have to be made between the two for further test matches. Saka must not be missing in this form and should not be put back on the left-back. England had little to defend here, which perhaps explained some laxity as Ali Gholizadeh played a lovely back ball from behind Maguire for Mehdi Taremi to give Iran something to celebrate before scoring a penalty. Marcus Rashford had already scored with his first touch before setting up Jack Grealish for the sixth. The City attacker added a bit of cheer with a celebration for his new pal Finlay Fisher.

It was that kind of game, everything went the England way. That was also after it certainly wasn’t that kind of build up, nothing went after Qatar and Fifa.

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