England v Iran preview: Southgate’s men to survive scare against underdogs in World Cup opener

The Three Lions will score early but can expect talisman Taremi to make life difficult for them in Qatar, kick-off 1pm, writes Um-E-Aymen Babar.

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England go into their World Cup opener against Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium this afternoon as strong favourites to top Group B and will therefore be expected to get their tournament off to a flyer. However, they could run into some trouble with pesky underdogs Iran, who are not to be underestimated.

In the final fixture of the Nations League, England and Wales were relegated while Iran claimed a 1-0 victory over Uruguay and drew 1-1 with the Africa Cup of Nations defending champions Senegal. The key thing for Iran will be holding their nerve on the big stage in their third consecutive World Cup appearance, having previously struggled to make it past the group stage.

While England’s results in the lead up to Qatar have not been great, they will be looking to emulate their performance at the 2018 World Cup where they reached the semi-finals. But the main challenge for Gareth Southgate will be if he can lead the team to do one better than they did four years ago.

Pressure is on the Three Lions to win this game due to their recent poor form. A loss could be damaging and will also mean England will have to beat the USA and Wales. For Iran, denying Southgate a victory will give them the confidence needed in a tough group and see them revel in their underdog status.

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England attackers Bukayo Saka, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling will need to be at their best to find a way through Iran’s robust defence. Former Manchester United and Real Madrid coach Carlos Queiroz’s side didn’t concede many goals in qualifying on their way to winning eight out of their 10 games, with star player Mehdi Taremi scoring four goals as well as chipping in with two assists. England will also be familiar with the threat of midfielder Alireza Jahanbakhsh from his time at Brighton.

While Southgate confirmed that England players will be taking the knee before kick-off, last night it emerged Kane could be risking a booking if he wears the OneLove rainbow captain’s armband as planned in support of LGBTQ+ rights. It remains to be seen whether the skipper will defy Fifa’s orders this afternoon.

Injury list

Southgate confirmed that all of his players were available except midfielder James Maddison. Kyle Walker has been training with the team after recovering from injury but this game just comes too early for him. While Iran striker Sardar Azmoun has yet to reach his peak performance since suffering a calf injury in early October.

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Dangerman: Mehdi Taremi

Much of Iran’s hopes will be pinned on Porto striker Mehdi Taremi, who has scored 13 goals in 19 games for the Primeira Liga club this season — including five in the Champions League. Possessing both finesse and physicality, the 30-year-old big-game player will be a handful for England defenders John Stones and Harry Maguire. Talisman Taremi is two-footed and ruthless in front of goal, making him Iran’s biggest threat.

Managers speak

England manager Gareth Southgate said: “We know the quality of their players and we know under Carlos [Queiroz] in the last World Cup [that] they’re very well organised. We are ready for the game, ready for a strong challenge and we have to be the best version of ourselves.”

Iran boss Carlos Queiroz said: “The most important thing is not to make the other teams bigger than they are and we cannot be smaller than we are. I have worked in many countries, worked with many great players – I have never seen in my life players who deliver so much with so little.”

Possible starting line-ups

Prediction: England 2 Iran 1

While Iran’s track record has been impressive recently, England still have the upper hand with the depth and range of talent in their squad. They have world-class players, many of whom have experience of holding their nerve when it matters the most. As it’s their opening match, Southgate’s men will come out strong and look to score a goal quickly but Iran will pull one back through Taremi to make things interesting. It will be down to Kane and Co to spare England’s blushes.

Follow Um-E-Aymen Babar on Twitter @ItsUmeAymen

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