England hammered Iran 6-2 to kickstart World Cup campaign in style; all the big calls made by Gareth Southgate paid off; Gareth Bale showed his importance to Wales once more against USA; Cody Gakpo announced himself on the big stage; Edouard Mendy's form a concern for Senegal and Chelsea
Tuesday 22 November 2022 12:31, UK
Gareth Southgate has won the most matches at major tournaments of any England manager - and he keeps getting the big calls right.
Sir Alf Ramsey remains the greatest Three Lions boss by virtue of delivering the World Cup in 1966, yet Southgate is a close second.
Southgate has always been brave with his team selections. In 2018, he deployed an unfamiliar three-man defence. At Euro 2020, in the pressure-cooker of England's first game at a home tournament against an experienced Croatia side, he named Kieran Trippier at left-back and handed Kalvin Phillips his tournament debut in midfield. He would later start Bukayo Saka in the semi-final.
Southgate is never swayed by public opinion, although he did set England up in the popular 4-3-3 system to face Iran. The big call was starting Harry Maguire at left centre-back after his bit-part role at the start of Manchester United's season.
Maguire imposed himself on Iran, hitting the crossbar with a header before setting up Saka's first goal. There is a feeling now that England would miss having him in the defence against USA should he not be able to recover from injury.
Southgate could have easily opted for Phil Foden or Marcus Rashford over Saka on the right wing, yet the Arsenal youngster delivered a two-goal performance.
Southgate also gave a first tournament start to 19-year-old Jude Bellingham, who scored a superb header and was outstanding in midfield.
There remains question marks over Southgate's in-game management after losing leads in the 2018 World Cup semi-final and the Euros final although undoubtedly the level-headed England boss knows how to approach tournament football.
"He's never let us down," Wales manager Rob Page told ITV. "Once again it's all about Bale and rightly so."
He always makes the difference for his country. It had, in truth, been a quiet performance from Bale up until he provided the decisive moment late in the second half.
A 41st goal for his country, a first for Wales in the World Cup for 64 years. It was always going to be him to make the difference.
"We've been talking about Bale all day and it's always about moments for this player," Roy Keane told ITV.
"It's written in the stars for him when he turns out for Wales, and it was a great finish."
He has been the leader for his country for so long, but he doesn't seem to feel the pressure or the burden of responsibility. In fact he relishes it.
"There were no doubts in my head [I was going to take the penalty}," Bale told ITV. "I have to step up and I'm happy to do so."
On his World Cup debut, Bellingham lit up the Khalifa International Stadium. It is increasingly difficult to believe he is only 19-years-old.
The midfielder only made appearances off the bench at last summer's European Championships. However, 16 months is a long time in football. This season Bellingham has scored four goals in five Champions League games, with three Bundesliga goals.
He had wanted to score more for his club, but he can now add a first England and World Cup goal to his tally.
It did take some time for Bellingham to settle into the game, arguably reflective of England's start as a whole. He gave away a sloppy foul for Iran's first free-kick of the game, but once he found the net in the 35th minute, he was practically unstoppable.
Luke Shaw provided a brilliant cross that Bellingham looped home, inexplicably unmarked inside the area. It was some way to score your first World Cup goal, becoming England's second-youngest goalscorer in World Cup history after Michael Owen in 1998.
While he may not have picked up an official assist for the other five goals, his physicality, vision and anticipation set England on their way. For the third, he stayed alert in midfield to pick up a loose ball after a foul on Saka before playing in Harry Kane.
It was also a truly world-class, floated pass that picked out Callum Wilson down the right wing for Jack Grealish's late sixth. He played a similar ball early on too for Trippier in arguably a warning sign to Iran as to what they could expect.
You could write a novel on the number of delicious moments Bellingham produced against Iran. Those who have watched Borussia Dortmund games this season will not be shocked either - he does this week in, week out in Germany.
Alongside Jordan Pickford and Kane, Bellingham should now be an unequivocal inclusion in Southgate's starting XI. He shows maturity and wisdom beyond his years, on and off the pitch.
He looks nailed on as a future England captain, and could still be playing for his country in 15 years' time, all being well. It is a truly exciting prospect, but for now, let's enjoy the young talent of Bellingham and his performances at this World Cup.
Gareth Bale will take the headlines again as Wales' goalscorer but Kieffer Moore was the game-changer for Rob Page's side against USA.
After a limp first half, in which Wales spent the majority of the first 45 minutes of their return to the World Cup stage on the back foot, without the ball and struggling to keep it when they did win it back, Moore was the figurehead in the momentum shift after the break.
Sent on at the interval for the small, nippy Dan James, 6ft 5in Moore provided a focal point for his Wales team-mates, a target to hit when they looked to move up the pitch. Rather than struggle to play through the Americans' press, Wales now went over it.
His presence appeared to knock USA off their stride and cause real concern among their defence, particularly from set-pieces. Moore's powerful header from a corner just fizzed over the bar midway through the half as a rejuvenated Wales pushed forwards.
It was the kind of impact which will have left fans wondering why he didn't start - and Page will surely now be tempted to put him into the mix against Iran from the first whistle on Friday.
With Wales knowing victory in that game is likely to be crucial to their hopes of progressing from the group, there is the option to go with a far more attacking line-up, switching to a back four and accommodating both James and Moore, along with Bale and Aaron Ramsey.
Wales have waited 64 years for this opportunity. With Moore in the mood, they need to go for it.
Maguire was replaced after 70 minutes having complained of blurred vision, but the much-maligned Manchester United centre-back had made his point.
The 29-year-old was the subject of thorough concussion checks after appearing dazed in the aftermath to Mehdi Taremi's first goal. Whatever the reason, it certainly looked to have had an impact on the player's judgment as the Porto striker peeled off him to rattle past Pickford.
But, by then, Maguire had more than vindicated Southgate's decision to stick by him. It was the biggest call of Southgate's 77th team selection as manager, but Maguire's performance meant he was 100 per cent justified to pick a defender who has rarely let him down.
Here in Doha, Maguire looked like the lion who roared in Russia, bowling out from defence and squeezing Taremi's every touch. He might have capped his performance with England's first goal, a trademark header thudding back off the bar.
But he was alert to pick out Saka for his first goal and the player's forlorn figure as he was forced off means Southgate will be desperate for positive news on his go-to man ahead of facing USA on Friday.
By the end of the 2022 World Cup's second game, VAR had already proven to be as inconsistent as ever.
Early on in England's game against Iran, both John Stones and Maguire were clearly fouled - you arguably did not need any VAR to see England should have been awarded a penalty. However, no spot-kick was given by referee Raphael Claus and the VAR officials did not review the decision.
In the final moments of the game - with a huge 24 minutes of added time being played at the end of either half - Iran were awarded a penalty as Stones was penalised for a foul on Taremi. The Iran forward scored his second goal of the game from the spot.
While there was no denying Stones' foul was a penalty, it begs the question how two clear England shouts went completely unanswered and Iran's was given, despite the technology being there to stop exactly these kinds of errors happening.
Even in the opening match, Ecuador's early goal was ruled out for offside, but it was very unclear as to why. There were patchy replays at best and it was not fully explained until later in the first half.
While VAR communication is never a perfect art, it was another pitfall of FIFA's use of the technology. You hope that as the already-controversial tournament continues, it will begin to find some consistency.
VAR was first used at a major tournament at the 2018 World Cup in Russia and is now in use across the world - it is not the new concept it once was. However, we are still waiting for the consistency and elimination of errors as was promised.
Saka's last touch for England at a major tournament led to the worst moment of his professional career - but he showed against Iran that he has carried no baggage into the World Cup.
The Arsenal winger, one of Southgate's favourites, justified his selection over the likes of Foden, Rashford and Grealish with a two-goal performance.
Saka's left foot, cutting in from the right, brings balance to the England attack while he can also be trusted to help his full-back. That was all evident in his fine display at the Khalifa International Stadium with his first goal, a sumptuous volley which clipped the underside of the crossbar, sparking England's tournament well and truly into life.
He showed his composure in the second half to cut into the box and find the bottom corner while constantly giving the Iran defence something to worry about.
Saka, still only 21, now has the experience and confidence to become one of England's main men in Qatar.
It was a day to forget for Iran in pretty much every sense. There was a strong message sent before a ball was kicked.
The team chose not to sing their country's anthem before their World Cup match on Monday, in an apparent show of solidarity with anti-government protesters amid discontent over their reluctance to speak out.
Iran's players were solemn and silent as the anthem was played before the match with England at the Khalifa International Stadium, where thousands of Iranian fans in the stands shouted as the music rang out.
Some jeered and others were seen making thumbs-down gestures. More than two months of protests in Iran, sparked by the death of a young woman in the custody of the morality police, are one of the boldest challenges to Iran's clerical leaders since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
But on the field, there was further controversy as Carlos Queiroz and his medical team initially allowed goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand to play on despite a sickening clash of heads with team-mate Majid Hosseini.
After a 10-minute wait, Beiranvand played on before going down again. He would leave the field on a stretcher. The medical team have a responsibility to deal with concussion protocols seriously, and the images were clear. Beiranvand was in no fit state to continue and should never have been allowed to take the goal-kick after play resumed.
"According to the medical information and the referees, they were not able to stop the bleeding.
"Apparently, we don’t know it is something related to a broken nose. But when we were ready to make the sub after stopping the bleeding, we thought that he could keep going.
"There were some signs of a possibility of a concussion, it was not clear. Unfortunately one minute after the player was not able to keep going and suffered a serious concussion. He is on the way to the hospital.
"That’s why the delay happened, it was doubt between a broken nose and the concussion."
Queiroz incited Iran supporters during the second period as he turned to them and called for more noise but he ought to have taken responsibility for this gross oversight, instead preferring to focus on those who booed the team as England's goals kept flying in.
"In 2014 and 2018, we had full support from the fans," he said. "Now you saw what happened today. If Iran fans want to come here and not support the team, they should stay home. We don't need them. To have fans that are only supporting the team when they are winning, we don't need them."
Queiroz should focus on his own conduct.
Following his summer move from Manchester City to Chelsea, Raheem Sterling has not delivered for his new club to his usual standards. With just three goals in 12 appearances compared to 26 in 60 for City last season, Sterling has struggled to continue his rate of goals while playing in a darker shade of blue, leading to some speculation over his selection.
There has also been plenty of discussion over whether Maguire should be playing for England following his poor Manchester United form. However, the difference between the two - who proved Southgate right for picking them - is that Sterling has had minutes for Chelsea in the Premier League.
This match sharpness will have contributed to a mighty opening match performance against Iran, and Sterling, being in the right place at the right time, slotted home goal number three. He also created a goal, assisting Saka's second.
Sterling's ability to take it up a gear for England, for me, comes down to his leadership qualities. He made his debut for England in 2012 at just 17, so he knows how it feels to be a young English hope, with the pressure of a nation on his shoulders.
That is why, while still relatively young, Sterling steps up to lead by example when wearing an England shirt. Be it Bellingham, Rashford, Saka or Grealish, he knows they look to him. In this game, he showed them the way, once more.
It was not supposed to be this easy, was it?
England put the 20th-best team in the world to the sword - but were Southgate's side excellent or Iran hopeless? The answer lies somewhere in between.
Like all of England's Group B opponents, this was a game they were expected to win, but not by four goals.
All the talk in the build-up was how Iran would make things difficult and pundits were predicting a narrow England victory. After all, England had not won in six matches - their worst run under Southgate.
Iran will feel they are a lot better than what they showed. The early injury to goalkeeper Beiranvand did not help their cause, but Quieroz's side will take hope from Taremi's well-worked first goal.
England were near-perfect - tougher tests await.
The 2022/23 season has been one to forget for Edouard Mendy so far but he would have had hopes that travelling to the World Cup with Senegal could have marked a turning point.
Away from his troubles with Chelsea, the goalkeeper arrived in Qatar as the No 1 for the African champions, who were tipped by many to make the knockout stages before the tournament kicked off.
But instead, the mistakes that have hindered Mendy's campaign at club level appear to have followed him to the World Cup, with the 30-year-old offering a helping hand for both the Netherlands' goals in their 2-0 win over Senegal.
Aliou Cisse's side matched their European counterparts for 84 minutes, until Mendy rushed from his line to meet Frenkie de Jong's fine left-wing cross but was beaten to it by Cody Gakpo, who timed his run and header to perfection.
If there was doubt over whether Mendy was at fault for the opener, there was no debating the second as the 'keeper palmed Memphis Depay's tame shot straight into the path of Davy Klaassen, who slotted in the second in stoppage time to seal the Netherlands' win.
Previously an impressive figure between the sticks for Chelsea, Mendy has seemed to be gripped by nerves since the summer and was replaced as the Blues' first-choice stopper after gaffes against Leeds and West Ham.
Those nerves reared their head again in the Al Thumama Stadium as Senegal fell to defeat in their opening World Cup game - a result that realistically means they must beat Qatar on Friday to salvage their hopes of reaching the last 16.
Cody Gakpo started to make headlines in England when he emerged as a target for Manchester United, Leeds and Southampton in the summer transfer window after impressing for PSV.
The 23-year-old revealed talks were held with Man Utd, but they eventually signed Antony while Gakpo remained in Eindhoven - a decision that appears to be paying dividends for the Dutchman.
Gakpo is top for both goals and assists in the Eredivisie this season, meaning clubs of a higher calibre than Leeds and Southampton are likely to come calling when the window reopens in January.
The forward's match-winning display for the Netherlands against Senegal will do nothing to dampen the enthusiasm from interested clubs.
With Louis van Gaal's side seemingly meandering to a draw, Gakpo seized the moment, ghosting in ahead of Edouard Mendy to nod his side into a late lead with their first shot on target of the game.
It's those attacking instincts that have seen him rise to the top of the goalscoring charts in his homeland, while the three chances he created - more than any of his team-mates - showed why Van Gaal deployed him in the No 10 role.
Also capable of playing on the wing or as a striker, Gakpo could prove to be a crucial weapon for the Netherlands at the World Cup - a scenario that will only serve to raise his value ahead of the inevitable battle for his signature.