The Three Lions latest quest for major tournament glory begins with their World Cup 2022 opener against Iran in Group B at the Khalifa International Stadium on Monday afternoon.
Meanwhile, their opponents are competing on the biggest global stage for the third time in a row but are facing an uphill battle to finally progress beyond the group stage.
Another attempt to emulate the heroes of 1966 awaits Gareth Southgate’s young, effervescent crop, and should the Three Lions continue the theme of going one better at major tournaments under the 52-year-old, the empty suitcase that Declan Rice brought along to carry home the World Cup trophy will come in handy.
The nation could hardly have been happier when Kieran Trippier scored that memorable free kick against Croatia in the semi-finals four years ago, and even that moment was topped when Luke Shaw struck first against Italy in the Euro 2020 final, but England ended both tournaments without the winners’ medals around their necks.
This time around, optimism is not exactly high, with the 1966 champions entering the World Cup on the back of a winless Nations League campaign which saw them relegated to League B, having also failed to score from open play until their 3-3 draw with Germany on the final matchday.
A slice of unwanted history is also on the line for England here, as the Three Lions could fail to win seven games in a row for only the second time, having set that record all the way back in 1958, which would be a major blot on Southgate’s notebook as speculation over his post-World Cup future hots up.
England have also made a habit of winning one opening match at the World Cup and failing to win the next – prevailing on matchday one in 1998, 2006 and 2018 but coming up short in 2002, 2010 and 2014 – and Iran ought to play without any fear knowing that the pressure is firmly off their shoulders.
The world’s 20th-ranked nation will expect to be battling Wales and the USA for second place in Group B should England ride off into the sunset as expected, but Team Melli are one of a number of nations to have become embroiled in pre-tournament controversy.
The Ukrainian FA requested the expulsion of Iran from the World Cup over allegations of the Asian nation supplying weapons to Russia for the ongoing war in Eastern Europe, but Carlos Queiroz’s side are now preparing to compete on the finals stage for the third time in a row.
It will not come as too much of a surprise to learn that Iran have never progressed beyond the group stage of the World Cup in its current format, and they have only ever won two games in the tournament, one of which came against Morocco on the opening matchday at Russia 2018.
Team Melli warmed up for the 2022 World Cup with a 1-0 friendly win over Nicaragua last week before going down to Tunisia 2-0 on Wednesday – just their third defeat in their last 22 contests – but their World Cup goals-per-game ratio of 0.6 is the worst of any country to have played at least 10 matches at the tournament.
England and Iran will be locking horns for the first time on Monday, and Team Melli are aiming to secure their first win over European opposition at the ninth attempt, which would certainly send early shockwaves around Qatar early doors.
England and Manchester City right-back Kyle Walker has already admitted that Monday’s game will come too soon for him as he battles back from groin surgery, while James Maddison missed training earlier this week to manage his workload following an injury scare last weekend and is also set to miss out.
The Leicester City man was never expected to feature from the first whistle here, though, and Kieran Trippier should be given the nod on the right in Walker’s absence, while the age-old question of whether Southgate will line up with a back three or back four is already being asked.
Rice and Kalvin Phillips formed an effective midfield partnership at Euro 2020, but the latter’s lack of game time following shoulder surgery could tempt Southgate into selecting fan favourite Jude Bellingham for the opening matchday.
As for Iran, experienced midfielder Omid Ebrahimi is the most notable absentee from their squad due to a groin injury, but Bayer Leverkusen striker Sardar Azmoun is part of the team despite tearing a calf muscle last month.
It would be a shock to see Azmoun considered for a start here, but Queiroz has another established centre-forward in Porto’s Mehdi Taremi ready to shoulder the goalscoring burden, and he should be supported by a familiar name in Alireza Jahanbakhsh.
Ehsan Hajsafi will wear the captain’s armband as he prepares to make his 122nd appearance for Team Melli, while Brentford’s Saman Ghoddos should be content with a place on the bench.
England possible starting lineup:
Pickford; Trippier, Stones, Maguire, Shaw; Rice, Bellingham; Saka, Mount, Sterling; Kane
Iran possible starting lineup:
Beiranvand; Moharrami, Pouraliganji, Hosseini, Mohammedi; Nourollahi, Ezatolahi, Hajsafi; Jahanbakhsh, Taremi, Amiri
We say: England 2-0 Iran
Iran’s attacking ranks may include some household names with plenty of international nous in front of goal, but we do not expect any surprises to be sprung on Monday afternoon.
Desperate to dust off the cobwebs after a dismal Nations League campaign and with plenty of their own in-form attackers to call upon, England ought to begin their World Cup campaign with a routine three points.
UNITED KINGDOM (UK)
CREDIT: SPORTS MOLE