England blew away months of growing pessimism with a free-wheeling start to the World Cup today, smashing six goals past Iran to underline their credentials as potential winners.
Bukayo Saka scored twice while Jude Bellingham, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish also netted as Gareth Southgate’s team put down a marker in Qatar.
Two goals from Mehdi Taremi, the second a stoppage-time penalty, took some gloss off England’s day, while Harry Maguire’s positive return was cut short by a head injury.
But this was a near-perfect start to Group B for the Three Lions, especially given the doubts that had been sown by a six-match winless run heading into the tournament.
England’s young lions star
England retain a familiar spine but it was two newer additions who inflicted the most damage on Iran: winger Saka and central midfielder Bellingham.
Saka showed why he has become undroppable, repeatedly prising Iran open with direct running and mustering two excellent finishes with his left foot.
The first he volleyed into the top corner after Maguire nodded down a corner, while the second he passed into the net after dummying two defenders.
Bellingham, meanwhile, capped a brilliant display with his first international goal, England’s opener at this World Cup, a 35th-minute header into the far corner from Luke Shaw’s cross.
The 19-year-old, who was still at school when the team reached the last four at Russia 2018, dazzled with an influential box-to-box display.
Maguire’s mixed fortunes
Southgate took a calculated risk by picking the out-of-form Maguire but was rewarded with a strong display from a player often at his best for England.
Solid and assured at the back, he was also a menace in the opposition box and should have been awarded a penalty when he was hauled down inside the first few minutes.
Maguire’s positive afternoon ended around the 70th minute when he was substituted after complaining of blurred vision following a blow to the head.
It is unclear whether he suffered a concussion and England played down the issue but he must now be a doubt for remaining group games with the USA and Wales.
Head injury protocol arose early in the game when Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand collided with defender Majid Hosseini.
Despite needing nine minutes of treatment, Beiranvand briefly continued the match in apparent contravention of football’s concussion rules.
Why officials did not step in is unclear, as was their reticence to allow Eric Dier onto the field to replace Maguire after he was removed for similar reasons.
Anyone who thought a break from the Premier League would be respite from VAR controversy will have been despairing at this World Cup so far.
After Ecuador yesterday had a goal ruled out against hosts Qatar for an offside that the automated offside system failed to detect, the video assistant referee found more questionable ground here.
Iran’s penalty for a shirt pull by John Stones looked generous in isolation but next to a clear foul on Maguire earlier in the game which was waved away, it was nonsensical.
Fortunately for England, they were out of sight by then, although Southgate declared himself “a bit fed up with the end” of the match.
Armband protest dropped
England backed out of plans for captain Harry Kane to wear a One Love armband against Iran to support inclusion after Fifa threatened them with sporting sanctions.
Having served notice of their intention to sport the armband in September, the governing body did not clarify its position until hours before this fixture.
Fearing Kane would be instantly booked, the Football Association and its counterparts in Wales, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland dropped the protest.
Amnesty International called it “the latest example of Fifa failing to fully uphold its own values and responsibilities”.