To the joy of thousands of English fans at the Khalifa International Stadium and millions back home, England started their World Cup campaign in thoroughly convincing fashion yesterday.
The Three Lions, one of the title contenders, outclassed Iran 6-2 in an incident-packed Group B opener. “To win by that margin, to play as we did for the majority of the game, we’ve got to be really happy,” said England manager Gareth Southgate.
Arsenal star Bukayo Saka scored a brace while teenager Jude Bellingham also found the net in their team’s strongest-ever start to a major tournament, while Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish also added their name to the score sheet in a superb performance.
England came into the tournament without a win in six games, but a brilliant opening 45 minutes set up the second-half stroll for them.
The rout began when 19-year-old wonderkid Bellingham, who became the second teenager in history to score in a World Cup for England, after Michael Owen in 1998, leaped to nod a Luke Shaw cross home in the 46th minute. Minutes later Saka smashed home a left foot shot off the crossbar. And then Sterling blasted in a volley following a cross from captain Harry Kane, effectively winning the game before halftime.
In the second-half, Saka grabbed his second with an hour on the clock. He passed the ball into the net after a mazy run to become the youngest England player to score two at a World Cup game. “We haven’t played the best coming into the tournament. There was a lot of talk and speculation about our form but we showed everyone how much quality we have and what we can do,” said Saka.
However, Southgate’s side would not be able to boast a clean sheet as Iran striker Mehdi Taremi pegged England back with a fierce strike past goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. Iran were awarded a penalty kick via VAR into stoppage-time, which they converted, but it mattered little. “It’s a great start. I’ve got to keep the team on the right track and we’ll have to be better,” Southgate said.
“The players dealt with the game really well. Our press was really good, our movement was really good. I’ve got to be really happy. But we shouldn’t be conceding two goals at that stage of the game. We’ll have to be right on our game. It’s a great start, but we’ll have to be better,” England manger added.
Iran had barely threatened the rivals after suffering the early setback of losing goalkeeper Beiranvand to suspected concussion but this was never going to change the course of the game given the chasm in class between the two teams.
“My view is simple and very pragmatic. The game finished in the first half at 3-0 down. The only goal then was to enjoy the game and be part of one moment,” said Iran manager Carlos Queiroz after the match.
“At the beginning it was clear the difference between high level competitive football and our players unfortunately they don’t have the same experience. But we win or we learn. We are privileged to learn a lot from the English team and are better prepared to play Wales,” he added.
This was only the second time England have scored six goals in a major tournament (England beat Panama 6-1 in Russia World Cup), but it will get harder for England as they now face the United States and passionate Wales, but this was the perfect start. Iran, meanwhile, run into Wales on Friday desperate to keep their last 16 hopes alive.
Grealish keeps promise to young fan with celebration
Jack Grealish kept his promise to a young fan who has cerebral palsy with his celebration after scoring his first World Cup goal for England against Iran. Grealish tapped home the final goal from close range in a 6-2 win and marked the moment with a broad smile and stretched his arms out to the side, rolling them in waves.
The Manchester City midfielder was keeping a pledge he made to 11-year-old Finlay, who met his favourite player after writing a letter to Grealish, whose sister Holly also has cerebral palsy.
“I wish there were more people in the world just like you who treat people with disabilities the same as anyone else,” Finlay had written. Grealish, 27, followed up with a letter of his own and also made a surprise visit to meet Finlay at a football session run by City’s charity programme. It was there that he pledged to dedicate his next goal to the boy with the arm gesture Grealish recreated
England’s forward Bukayo Saka (left) celebrates with teammates after scoring England’s fourth goal during the FIFA World Cup Group B match at the Khalifa International Stadium yesterday. (AFP)