Iran - key players, strengths, weaknesses, records
Iran will appear in their sixth World Cup — they have missed only two since the 1998 edition in France — and will begin their campaign against England on November 21 at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha.
The return of Carlos Queiroz as manager, though a last-minute change, could be a blessing in disguise. The Portuguese coached Iran in the 2014 and 2018 editions of the Cup.
Mehdi Taremi, Sardar Azmoun and Alireza Jahanbakhsh are a few of the key players for Iran in the winter showpiece. All three ply their trade in Europe and are masters at finding the net.
Taremi represents Porto, while Azmoun, better known as the Iranian Messi, is a potent force in Bayer Leverkusen. Jahanbaksh plays for the Dutch club Feyenoord. Saman Ghoddos, also the midfielder at Brentford, will bolster the combination.
None of these players has scored a World Cup goal. Karim Ansarifard is the only striker from the class of 2022 to achieve the feat. His dramatic late penalty resulted in a 1-1 draw with Portugal in 2018 but was not enough to push Iran to the knockouts.
Momentum will be Iran's biggest strength as they head to Qatar on the back of an impressive show at the third round of Asian qualifying. They won eight of their 10 games and conceded just four goals.
Iran beat Uruguay 1-0 and held Senegal for a 1-1 draw in the pre-tournament friendlies. Taremi scored against the South Americans, while Azmoun roared against the Africans.
Iran has to convert their chances, hold their nerves as they have often slipped from winning positions. They often falter while trying to counterattack after packing the defense for the larger part of the game.
The political unrest back home following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini will continue to remain a distraction. The woman, arrested for wearing the hijab improperly, died in police custody. It led to nationwide protests, and even the footballers have expressed dissent.
World Cup record
Iran, currently ranked 20th, has won only two out of their 15 World Cup games. They lost nine, drew four, and have never made it past the group stages. They beat the USA 2-1 in 1998 and Morocco 1-0 (due to an own goal from Aziz Bouhaddouz) in 2018.
England -key players, strengths, weaknesses, records
England, the champions of 1966, will be keen to end the 56-year drought in their 19th Cup appearance.
The Three Lions, who will begin their mission against the Iranians, will hope for a better result after the runners-up finish in Euro 2020.
Captain Harry Kane, who won the Golden Boot in 2018 for scoring six goals, will be the attacker-in-chief, along with midfielders Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden. Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, a favourite of coach Gareth Southgate, has been a tough cookie for the national side.
Sterling, who moved to Chelsea after seven years with Manchester City, was instrumental in pushing England to the finals of Euro 2020 with three goals. Foden scored a hat-trick for Manchester City against Manchester United in October 2022 to raise his stakes ahead of the Cup.
Pickford has been a rock since the 2018 edition. He had earned the man of the match award after England beat Sweden 2-0 in the quarterfinal.
Defender John Stones, who scored twice in Russia, will be on the defenders' list.
The English players will be at their peak as the Cup will start eight days post the Premier League break. Most top-flight footballers, including Kane, Sterling, Foden, Mason Mount and Bukayo Saka will be dribbling on the pitch till November 12-13.
All the players will be in rhythm, but they need to gel as England, keeping aside the club jerseys. The only practical challenge could be the weather, as they will fly into 22 degrees from 15 degrees.
England will continue their usual style of frequent long balls, lofted passes and crosses to get to the other end of the box.
England's mixed results in the Nations League that concluded in September raised a few eyebrows. They lost to Italy 0-1, a team that could not even qualify for the Cup, besides the 0-4 loss against Hungary in June.
England, ranked fifth, will not play any friendlies leading to the tournament, and Southgate will not have a chance to test his fringe players.
Manchester United star Harry Maguire's thigh injury is distressing. It remains to be seen if he gains fitness before the final squad announcement.
World Cup record
England had star players in the dugout even after 1966 but the Cup remained far away. The fourth-place finish in 1990 and 2018 are the two best performances since. They have reached the quarter-final on nine occasions and bowed out of the group stage thrice - 1950, 1958 and 2014.
Wales -key players, strengths, weaknesses, records
Wales will return to the World Cup fold after 64 years. They last appeared in the tournament in 1958, which marked the arrival of a 17-year-old Pele. Wales bowed out of the tournament after losing the quarter-finals to Brazil.
They qualified for the 2022 edition after they beat Ukraine 1-0 in a playoff in June. The Welshmen will start their campaign against the USA on November 22 at the Al Rayyan Stadium in Doha.
Rob Page did a stellar job and earned the head coach position from the interim role after Ryan Giggs’ departure.
Gareth Bale, a star footballer in the club circuit for the past 15 years, will finally don the Wales jersey in the World Cup. The 33-year-old was instrumental in guiding his side to the Cup with a free-kick that deflected off Ukrainian midfielder Andriy Yarmolenko in the playoff.
Bale comes with experience at Tottenham Hotspur (2007-2013) and Real Madrid (2013-2022) where he scored 81 goals and lifted the Champions League trophy five times. He will have Aaron Ramsey for company, who cut his teeth at Arsenal for 11 years.
Bale (40 goals) and Ramsey (20 goals) will be hungry to add to the tally.
With a young squad at disposal, although led by a veteran, Wales will have a lot of pace on offer. Daniel James, who represented Manchester United from 2019 to 2021, will be a brute force.
Wales believe in a 3-4-3 formation; they have a dynamic front three to execute their plans. They are known for breaking the opposition line quickly with the help of their athletic wingers.
Wales, ranked 19th, has the tactics to succeed but they crumble in match situations, and struggle for consistency. They are not too flexible with their on-field plans. Being rigid often results in less number of goals.
Despite three strikers upfront, Wales has not scored in a few of their crucial encounters. The 1-0 loss to Poland at Cardiff in the Nations League was their last game before the Cup opener.
Wales manager Page will not be risking friendlies on reaching Doha to prevent injuries.
World Cup record
Qatar 2022 will be a first for all the current footballers. The youngsters in the side can take a leaf out of Euro 2016, where Wales reached the semi-finals before losing to Portugal. They fought till the Round of 16 in Euro 2020.
USA - key players, strengths, weaknesses, records
The USA will play their 11th World Cup. The Americans had failed to qualify for Russia 2018 after a 2-1 shock loss against Trinidad and Tobago.
They made it to Qatar 2022 after finishing third in the CONCACAF third round of qualification. The side won seven of the 14 games and lost three, while four ended in a draw.
The 0-2 loss to Japan and 0-0 against Saudi Arabia in the Cup warm-ups seems a concern for Gregg Berhalter’s team. It will be interesting to see how they fare in the opener against Wales.
Captain Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna and Weston McKennie could be the game-changers for the 16th-ranked team.
Pulisic, referred to as Captain America by fans, has been the goal-scoring machine over the years. He scored his first international hat-trick for the USA in March 2022 in the 5-1 win over Panama in the FIFA World Cup qualification match. Recently, he opened his account for Chelsea against Wolverhampton.
Nineteen-year-old Reyna will bring pace and precision in the wings, along with Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie.
Reyna, however, has had his share of injuries in the past year. In the match against Saudi Arabia, he felt tightness in his hamstring and walked out after 30 minutes.
Statistics reveal that the USA is known for scoring goals. They have found the net nine times in their last 10 World Cup games; only Germany managed a clean sheet with a 1-0 win in 2014.
Though it could be different with a new set of players, the ethos of American football will not change. The presence of a situational player like Pulisic is the biggest strength since the youngsters often lose direction if down by a goal.
Inexperience is the main weakness, plus the players are drained with the emotional challenge and expectation to perform in the marquee event after eight years.
There was anxiety in the pre-World Cup camps as most players were trying hard to impress the manager for a spot, the approach that jeopardized their on-field performances. They had no shot on target against Japan and only two against Saudi Arabia.
It is an injury-prone team that lacks depth.
World Cup record
USA finished third in the 1930 edition, which is their best World Cup performance. The quarter-final finish in 2002 is second in the list.In 2010 and 2014, they were knocked out from the Round of 16.