Christian Pulisic strike guides USA past Iran to set up Netherlands meeting

Christian Pulisic struck in the first half before going off injured to earn a meeting with the Netherlands in the last 16

This proved a game too far for Iran. As their players took in the significance of the final whistle, many of them falling to the floor, it was impossible not to wonder what was running through their minds. Rarely has a team contested a World Cup facing such an extraordinary set of external pressures and the devastation at falling agonisingly short of a debut in the knockout stage was etched on every face. When the dust has settled they should take huge pride in remaining so competitive but the physical and emotional exertions of recent weeks will have taken a considerable toll.

The mood would have been vastly different had they converted one of several good second-half chances, the last of them falling to Mehdi Taremi deep into added time. He could not squeeze the ball far enough beyond Matt Turner, claiming to have been pulled back by Cameron Carter-Vickers and taking animated issue with the match officials after proceedings had concluded. In reality he was clutching at straws: any contact had been inconsequential and the truth was that, over the piece, Iran were beaten by the better side.

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It was a triumph for the USA, who deserved the winner Christian Pulisic mustered seven minutes before half‑time. There may be a cost: in scoring from close range Pulisic collided with the Iran goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand, and did not appear for the second half, undergoing precautionary scans in hospital for an abdominal injury. The prognosis remains to be seen but, for now, Gregg Berhalter and his players will savour the prospect of facing the Netherlands on Saturday.

They mastered an occasion for which the buildup contained enough storylines, strands and sledges to fill a tome. Iran’s football association had unsuccessfully requested Fifa ban the USA from the tournament for using an altered version of their flag on social media in solidarity with oppressed women in the country; Carlos Queiroz had stirred the pot by shining a light on social problems across the Atlantic and all this is before anyone factors in the longer-term history between the two.

Iran’s Ali Karimi is dejected in defeat
Iran’s Ali Karimi is dejected in defeat. Photograph: Ricardo Mazalán/AP

Singing their national anthem with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the Iran players could not fail to hear the whistles raining down from sections of their support. Those were aimed at the regime, not the men caught in the middle; when play began the fans’ energy was channelled into deafening support of their team, only falling chillingly silent when Pulisic finished off a superb move.

“The dream is over,” Queiroz said before paying tribute to the remarkable application of his squad. “Throughout my career I have never seen players who gave so much and received so little in return. I am extraordinarily proud of their dedication and the effort that they made, wearing their jerseys for their country.”

A point would have seen them qualify but, after starting like a team that fancied all three, they spent most of the opening period overrun by a fit, fast USA team that Queiroz described as “Ferraris”. The goal had been coming even if clear chances had not preceded it; Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah and Weston McKennie had assumed control of midfield while Sergiño Dest and Timothy Weah wreaked chaos down the right.

Their pressure told in slick fashion with execution straight from the training ground. Everything had to be perfect and it was: from McKennie’s 45-yard diagonal ball towards Dest, to the right-back’s run and deliberate header across the six-yard box, to Pulisic’s sharply timed dart and adept finish from close in. The blow he took in the process will have been worth it.

“They deserved to score,” Queiroz admitted. But his assessment of the second half was that Iran did, too, and he concluded a draw would have been “the right result”. They did not mount enough sustained pressure to be entirely convincing, even as the USA went into their shell, but the substitute Saman Ghoddos was wayward from two presentable openings and Ramin Rezaeian headed a whisker wide as the minutes ticked down.

The suspension of Alireza Jahanbakhsh and evident fitness issues surrounding Sardar Azmoun, who was withdrawn at the interval, limited their attacking options and they looked leggy for extended periods. Taremi fluffed a golden chance to tee up a sitter for Azmoun before the USA took control but Iran never quite seemed sharp enough.


It all made for an occasion that passed mercifully quietly, even if there was no pre-match repeat of the joint photograph taken when the countries met at France 98. Berhalter noted that this year’s team had summoned the intensity that their predecessors, who were beaten 2-1 back then, could not. That made a sizable difference but surely the environment within which Iran have been forced to operate did, too.

“Thanks to their work, the conversations, the players little by little started smiling again,” Queiroz said. “They understand to whom they are playing, they understand their mission when they are playing for Iran.” In helping shine a light on the appalling conditions faced by so many there, perhaps they have fulfilled part of it in Qatar. Whether generated on or off the pitch, the hurt and sadness will not pass quickly.


Nick Ames at Al Thumama Stadium

The GuardianTramp

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