It was a pleasure to watch England play, a relaxing experience and how often has that been written about them during the heat of a major men’s tournament? It had been billed as a likely war of attrition against Carlos Queiroz and his compact and committed Iran team but it was nothing of the sort, England easing towards a statement victory after grabbing a hold of the tie in the first half and squeezing tightly.
It was a feast for the few thousand England fans in attendance, men against boys on the pitch, although it was two of Gareth Southgate’s younger players who charged the occasion. Jude Bellingham became the nation’s second youngest World Cup scorer behind Michael Owen when he started the rout – the centrepiece of a performance of power, skill and precision – while Bukayo Saka deserved his two goals, the first a firecracker, as he radiated menace with his every involvement.
What of England’s out-of-form duo? Well, there was a goal for Raheem Sterling and a command performance from Harry Maguire, the only disappointment for him being when he was forced off towards the end because of illness.
It was also impossible not to enjoy the moment when Marcus Rashford came off the bench to make it 5-1 within what felt like seconds. Rashford’s previous kick in an England shirt had been the penalty miss against Italy in the Euro 2020 final shootout defeat.
Everything is possible, Southgate had said on Sunday, as he sought to consign the dismal Nations League campaign to unwanted history. This was a display to fire optimism. There was even the cherry on top of a late sixth for Jack Grealish, who had entered as a substitute, from a pull-back from another replacement, Callum Wilson.
The off-field tension and the disconnects had rumbled all the way to kick-off with England – and Harry Kane – forced to back down over the plan to wear the OneLove armband in support of the LGBTQ+ community. What a sorry tale it was, the latest example of Fifa and/or the Qataris flexing their muscle, making a checkmate move at the very last.
Faced with a choice between a yellow card or wearing Fifa’s official anti-discrimination armband, the Football Association and Kane chose the latter. The message from the FA was that the football had to come first. England made sure it was front and centre.
Southgate wanted to drive the uplift by getting onto the front foot, to pull Iran’s 5-4-1 system out of shape with quick movements and interplay, although there would be a pronounced false start, a break in the early rhythm. When the Iran goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand, crashed into his own teammate, Majid Hosseini, as he dealt with a Kane cross, the impact was shuddering, his face bloodied.
It was clear that he would not be able to continue and yet, after lengthy treatment, he was helped to his feet. He was back down shortly afterwards and, this time, he was taken off on a stretcher. It was the 19th minute. It should have happened 10 minutes previously. The officials would add on 14 minutes at the end of the first half.
How England reset. When the board went up to show the extraordinary amount of stoppage time, Sterling had just made it 3-0 with a lovely finish from Kane’s right-wing cross after a driving Bellingham run. Iran had been overwhelmed, England winning the duels, often high up. Bellingham was irrepressible; Saka lively up the right. The passing was on point.
There was another key aspect to England’s first-half dominance – that of Maguire over his markers on corners. He ought to have had a third-minute penalty after Rouzbeh Chesmi manhandled him to the ground on a Kieran Trippier delivery – it was a mystery how the referee or, more pertinently, the VAR did not spot it – while he thumped a header from another in the 33rd minute against the crossbar.
Moments earlier, Mason Mount had shot into the side-netting after a Saka cross. The opening goal had been advertised and, when it came, it was a Bellingham beauty, a special moment from a special talent.
Maguire started the move by punching a pass up through the lines and when it was worked wide, Luke Shaw’s cross invited Bellingham to rush across Hosseini. He rose to angle a perfect header into the far, top corner. As an aside, Bellingham’s first-half passing statistics showed 40 attempts and 40 completions, 10 of them in the final third.
Maguire was also involved in the second goal, heading down from another corner but it was all about what Saka did next, setting his feet, taking a breath and exploding a left‑footed blast into the top corner.
It had been impossible to ignore the situation of the Iranian players. In the face of the violence and protests that have engulfed their country in the wake of the death in custody of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, they had so much other than football on their minds. England took the knee beforehand but would Iran’s players sing their national anthem, which is seen as a gesture in support of the regime? To a man, the answer was a stony-faced no.
Iran were fiercely motivated but there were times when their aggression was too much; their tackles crossing the line to the visible anger of Southgate. Morteza Pouraliganji caught Kane and England were relieved when the captain regained his feet after treatment. Saka’s second saw him jink inside from the right, past one challenge and then another before pulling the trigger – it was too easy – and Rashford’s goal followed a Kane pass and a dart inside.
In between times, Mehdi Taremi lashed home after the substitute, Ali Gholizadeh, had played him in behind Maguire. It was practically Iran’s first chance.
At the very end, Jordan Pickford tipped a blast from another replacement, Sardar Azmoun, against the crossbar and there would be a harsh VAR-dictated penalty for Iran when John Stones pulled Taremi’s shirt. After the early non-award for Maguire, it was baffling. England had the luxury of Taremi’s conversion not hurting.