Qatar 2022 Group B Preview: Political tension underlies the 'Group of Death'

Joey Leizerowitz

i24NEWS Qatar 2022 World Cup Correspondent

10 min read
England's Harry Kane celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Germany and England at the Allianz Arena, in Munich, Germany.
AP Photo/Markus UlmerEngland's Harry Kane celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Germany and England at the Allianz Arena, in Munich, Germany.

Will England finish as expected in first, or will Wales, Iran, or the United States shock the world?

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i24NEWS GraphicsQatar 2022 FIFA World Cup Group B Schedule

England

Man oh man where to start with this England squad. After reaching the semi-final of the 2018 World Cup and losing the Euros by penalty kicks, it seemed that Gareth Southgate's men would continue to set the benchmark in Europe ahead of Qatar 2022. It hasn't gone quite to plan since then though.

The Three Lions, despite their absurd level of depth and overflow of attacking talent (hi Harry Kane!), are not on the best footing on the defensive side of things. In England's last competitive match before the tournament, the defense conceded three to Germany at home, and Southgate's side only kept one clean sheet in their six matches of the Nations League (where they got relegated!). England's recent slump in the defensive half is also shocking when you take a look at their defensive record at the Euros, where they failed to concede a goal from open play.

Even after all the negativity around the squad in recent months from both media and fans, England are still massive favorites to top Group B and make a deep run into the knockout stages. 

In a condensed tournament that is taking place in the middle of the European season, form and familiarity could give England a big edge over their competition, especially if Harry Maguire, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and the backline can be average at best. 

The key to a long run for The Three Lions may well be how well midfielders Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham cover in front of the center-backs.

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The most important question for England might be in the manager's seat: Has Southgate learned from his last two tournaments? 

At both the 2018 World Cup semi-final in Russia and the Euro final at Wembley, England took an early first half lead and dominated in open play. In both matches, Southgate failed to allow his attack to decide the match, going into a defensive shell and retreating, allowing both Italy and Croatia back into the matches and eventually snatching away victories. 

Has Southgate learned, or will England's shell make or break their chances?

The USA

The Americans make their way back to the World Cup after after failing to qualify for Russia. 

The catastrophe in Trinidad that led the Stars and Stripes to miss their first World Cup in decades allowed for a reset for U.S. Soccer, ushering out the old and introducing a plethora of young American soccer players making waves across Europe's highest leagues.

Despite Gregg Berhalter's squad finishing third in North American qualifying, behind Canada and Mexico, the U.S. actually won more trophies than any other National Team in 2021, capturing both the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup trophies. Spearheaded by Chelsea's Christian Pulisic, the Americans have the youngest overall squad in Qatar, which could give them a leg-up with matches being played every three to four days.

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
AP Photo/Jack DempseyMembers of the United States celebrate a 3-2 win against Mexico in extra time in the CONCACAF Nations League championship soccer match

Even in his first cycle and going into his first World Cup as a manager, Berhalter has not been afraid of making big roster decisions. Goalkeeper Zach Steffen and striker Ricardo Pepi, who both started multiple qualifier matches and have had a big impact this cycle, have been left home. In attack, it is anyone's guess who starts in between Puslic and Gio Reyna at striker when the U.S. opens play against Iran. Josh Sargent has established himself as one of the best strikers in the second tier of English soccer, while Jesus Ferreira fits Berhalter's system like a glove. Haji Wright, who surprisingly made the squad over Pepi, would be a wildcard choice by the former Columbus Crew manager.

The truth with this U.S. squad is that we don't really know what they are yet. 

On paper, the Americans have the talent to challenge England for the top spot in the group and be a dark horse candidate to make a deep run in the knockout stages. Yet, when you factor in the technical inexperience of the coaching staff and the lack of World Cup experience among the players, the Americans could truly finish anywhere from first to fourth in this group.

Wales

Back at the pinnacle of international soccer for the first time since 1958, Wales fought tooth and nail for their spot in Qatar. 

Defeating Ukraine in an emotional European playoff, the British nation will hope to shock the world and find a way into the knockout stages.

Those hopes will largely fall on the backs of superstar Gareth Bale. In his first World Cup appearance, the former Real Madrid man has all the pedigree and accolades that a player would want on his resume. At the age of 33 though, Bale is not the same player he was five years ago in Madrid, where he could simply out-run or out-jump players at will.

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Manager Rob Page will have to manage both Bale and midfielder Aaron Ramsey's appearances with caution. Despite Bale's brilliant cameo in MLS Cup against the Philadelphia Union, the Welsh superstar has not played regularly in over two years and is recovering from a knock he suffered with LAFC. It remains to be seen if Bale and Ramsey can start matches and go a full 90 minutes. 

Even with aging stars and the chips stacked against them, Wales will definitely fancy their chances against the U.S. and Iran. If they can grab three or more points from their first two matches, who knows how a rivalry match against England could go.

Wales are seen by many as a one man show, and in many sense it is true: Wales will likely go as far as Bale can take them.

Iran

Ranked 20th in the world, Iran have become a mainstay at recent World Cups and a powerhouse in Asian soccer. On the flip side, despite all their appearances at major tournaments and success in their region, the Iranians have never advanced out of their group at a World Cup before.

On the pitch, Iran is led by Bayer Leverkusen forward Sardar Azmoun, who is referred to by many as the Messi of Iran. Azmoun has put up incredible striking numbers for his nation, averaging two goals every three matches for Iran. While Azmoun's numbers have been impressive, don't expect the Iranians to have an attack minded game plan in any of their three matches. Manager Carlos Quieroz will likely set his team up to defend and allow the opposition to have 60 percent or more possession, hoping to hit on the counter attack with Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi.

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Off the pitch, it will be interesting to see how the players conduct themselves in the wake of the political pressure both domestically and internationally. 

With the ongoing Mahsa Amini protests in Iran, several players had posted on social media in solidarity with the demonstrations, only to have those posts deleted and silenced by officials in the country's soccer association. In their last few matches before the tournament, some of the Iranian players who have been accustomed to signing the national anthem have remained silent during it's playing before matches, as well as covering up their kits with the country's flag before matches. 

FIFA had multiple nations asking for the banning of Iran from the tournament, too.

The Iranian players will also have to deal with the political pressure of having to face nations that Iran's regime sees as some of it's biggest enemies: the United States and England.

There are so many layers to peel back on this level, from the nuclear negotiations to the fact Iran and it's opponents are currently backing opposite sides of the Russian-Ukrainian war (could you imagine if Ukraine had defeated Wales and was in this group as well), the player's will have no lack of pressure from any side in Qatar.

And yet, despite the political backdrop to this team and this tournament, it really could be a counter-attack (or two) that decides whether Iran finishes dead last in the group or slips into the knockout stages for the first time in their history.

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