Boos as England blow chance to qualify for the World Cup knockout phase with a match to spare in a turgid 0-0 draw with USA; Plus: Wales exposed as over-reliance on Gareth Bale is laid bare; Qatar making a strong case for the title of 'worst-ever World Cup host nation'
Saturday 26 November 2022 15:08, UK
Here is where the Harry Maguire debate should end.
How many more good performances for England does he have to produce to convince fans he should one of the first names on the teamsheet?
The centre-back was by far and away England's most efficient, committed and reliable player as the rest of the squad laboured to a draw with the USA. When England were under the upmost pressure and needed him most, he put his body on the line - and not for the first time in his Three Lions career.
Maguire got his infamous head on everything, making six clearances using that part of the body in the 95 minutes - twice as many as any other player on the pitch. He contributed offensively too, completing more long passes than any outfield player and ended up with a passing accuracy of 88 per cent.
He has rubberstamped his status - in England colours at least - as reliable at the back and vital to the Three Lions' progression play out the back.
There was a moment that rubberstamped Maguire's maturity in an England shirt so far. In the first half, Timothy Weah burst down the right, Luke Shaw was high up the pitch and the England backline was stretched. Danger was imminent.
A different Maguire, perhaps one in a Manchester United shirt, would have made a rash decision. But the defender delayed his opponent, nipped the ball away and England could reset.
Many pointed at Maguire and perhaps an injury-plagued Stones as a reason to be cautious regarding England's World Cup hopes. The reason why England fumbled against the USA was not because of the pair, but rather not having enough in front of them to develop their build-up play.
Southgate said before this USA clash that England will only miss Stones and Maguire once they're gone. His words make more sense as the games, years and tournaments go by.
A frustrating, mood-changing goalless draw after a positive opening group game? A Friday night let-down in the second match of a major tournament? Motivated opponents bringing intensity and leaving England looking sluggish?
We've seen this before.
England's 0-0 with USA and their draw with Scotland at the Euros by the same scoreline have plenty of similarities.
On that rain-soaked Wembley night last year, Reece James had to clear a Lyndon Dykes shot off the line. Seventeen months on, in the sapping night-time heat in Qatar, it was the woodwork that kept out a fierce Christian Pulisic strike.
Two underwhelming draws - but it could have been worse.
Certainly Gareth Southgate's post-match analysis after both games focused on the bigger picture, talking up the difficulty of the opposition and the need to not lose when you can't win.
It's a calm approach to the intense scrutiny of a World Cup campaign but he has the confidence and experience of a semi-final run at Russia 2018 and a runners-up finish at Euro 2020 behind him.
England's supporters will be hoping this latest draw will also be looked back upon as an unflamboyant but ultimately helpful point on the road to the knockouts, where performances and results really matter.
Will history repeat itself - or were there more significant, limiting issues in this performance?
"Whichever one of our forwards we did not put on and we did not win the game, I was going to be sitting here answering the question as to why I did not put them on." Maybe, although it still seems extraordinary that Phil Foden was sat on the bench throughout.
Gareth Southgate's explanation suggests Foden is up against it in Qatar. "We did not think it was a game for Phil in the middle because he does not play there for his club. Defensively, it was a really complicated game for the midfield three to work out."
Foden did play in the middle against Iran, coming on when three goals up after 70 minutes. If the second group game against United States was too complicated for him to trust Foden there, then it does not bode well for his chances later in this World Cup.
Behind Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish for a start on the left? Behind Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford for a start on the right? What a pity. Almost 200 games into his Manchester City career, perhaps England's most gifted player is still waiting.
Euro 2020 was almost Southgate's tournament but never really Foden's. He started the first two games, substituted both times, and saw only 25 minutes of action in the knockout stages. But this special young talent comes into this World Cup in fine form.
His seven Premier League goals this season is bettered only by Harry Kane in this squad. Pep Guardiola is famed for his rotation but if Southgate omits Foden against Wales then he will have left him out as many times as his club boss has in the Premier League since May.
Better teams than England would play Foden, a footballer of impeccable touch with speed of thought and the feet to match. Southgate has good options, of course. But if Foden sits out the rest of this World Cup among the substitutes, it feels like a call to regret.
This was a poor England performance but from the American point of view, Gregg Berhalter was understandably delighted with how his players applied themselves.
Heading into the final group game against Iran knowing victory will guarantee their progress, a hard-fought point was perfectly acceptable.
You won't see headlines of USA 'winning 0-0' across the pond this time.
USA will be a serious force at the next tournament and with Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah and Weston McKennie dominating England's midfield, who is to say they can't go deep here in Qatar?
"Sometimes, our midfield just didn't click tonight," Gary Neville said afterwards. "We looked tired and we didn't connect in midfield combinations. Their midfield was far better. They combined well and they were sharper.
"Their midfield three made our three look sluggish."
England's sobering reality check was in stark contrast to the slick USA engine-room, conducted by the indefatigable Adams - who racked up eight recoveries - and bespangled in colour by McKennie's vibrant red, white and blue hairdo.
In the battle of the 19-year-olds, Bellingham was outshone by former Arsenal academy starlet Musah, who left North London for Spain aged 16 in 2019 citing the need for a clear pathway to first-team football.
He hardly put a foot wrong, winning all of his aerial duels and tackles while clocking up a 100 per cent pass completion in the final third.
This was a Friday fizzler but in four years' time, when USA co-host the next World Cup, this stalemate with England could be viewed as the coming-of-age performance for this youthful vintage of the Stars and Stripes.
Wales' meeting with Iran was a historic game for Gareth Bale, his 110th appearance seeing him overtake Chris Gunter as his country's most-capped player, but it is not one he will remember fondly.
Bale had yet again delivered when Wales needed him most in their opening game against the USA, winning and converting the penalty which clinched their 1-1 draw at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium.
But there was to be no repeat of those heroics against Iran, with Bale unable to exert his usual influence, the 33-year-old limited to 36 touches, the fewest of any player to complete the game.
In the end, the performance and result exposed Wales' reliance on their talisman. Kieffer Moore was a useful outlet at times, but when Bale does not spark, neither do his team-mates.
That is not to say he should be blamed, of course.
In fact, other senior players were arguably even less effective, with Aaron Ramsey clearly lacking fitness in central midfield and goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey receiving a deserved red card for his rash foul on Mehdi Taremi.
But inevitably the spotlight ended up on Bale.
Wales will need more from him if they are to beat England in their final game, something they must do if they are to upset the odds to claim a place in the knockout stages. But in the long-term, they must find other solutions, and a new generation capable of building on the progress he has driven in recent years.
Host nation Qatar were perilously close to crashing out of the World Cup after slumping to another defeat against Senegal, who barely got out of third gear. The Netherlands' draw with Ecuador then sealed their miserable fate. They will play no further part in the tournament, bar a futile contest against the Dutch, where the result will be entirely academic.
There were small crumbs of comfort for the Qataris - they raised their game in the second period, creating a reasonable flurry of chances before scoring a well-crafted goal. But that does little to service the bigger picture; they are the first host nation to exit a World Cup tournament having only played two miserly group games.
Head coach Felix Sanchez put Qatar's opening-night loss down to "nerves." There can be no excuses to mitigate the abjectness of their display against the Senegalese, who were themselves off-colour.
The Gulf emirate, which has come under much scrutiny and criticism off the pitch, had never qualified for a World Cup tournament before winning the right to host it 12-years ago, and their footballing inability has done nothing to divert attention away from that fact.
They're throwing the party, but have ended up as the first invitee to take leave.
Ecuador are now unbeaten in four consecutive World Cup games for the first time in their history and that impressive run could not have happened without their veteran captain Enner Valencia.
The 33-year-old has scored each of his country's past six goals at the World Cup and is just the fourth player to score six consecutive times for a nation in the competition.
Since the 2014 edition of the tournament, only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have scored as many group-stage goals as Valencia - and he didn't even feature in Russia four years ago as Ecuador failed to qualify.
The former West Ham and Everton forward played a key role as the South Americans hit back to draw with Netherlands, scoring a well-deserved equaliser to register his third goal in Qatar after his double against the hosts on the opening day.
But that could be his final contribution. Valencia was stretchered off moments before stoppage time at Khalifa International Stadium after appearing to aggravate the knee problem that almost forced him to miss Ecuador's second group-stage game.
Whether he's fit for Tuesday's crucial decider against Senegal remains to be seen but one thing is certain - Ecuador's success depends on him.
Cody Gakpo opened the scoring again for Netherlands against Ecuador - just as he did in their opener against Senegal - with a very different type of goal than his first of the tournament.
It showed the range of his talent and why he is emerging as one of the stars in Qatar, but the concern for the Dutch and Louis van Gaal will be the lack of quality they have around him.
Steven Berwign and Davy Klaassen were ineffectual, while Memphis Depay didn't look entirely match fit when he came off the bench for the second half. Unless your name is Diego Maradona, one man cannot win a World Cup.