England will face Iran and the United States at the 2022 World Cup group stage, as well as one of Scotland, Ukraine, or Wales.
Gareth Southgate’s side have landed in Group B, meaning their first game will be on the opening day of the competition, so they won’t get a crucial one or two days of extra rest before beginning their campaign. Southgate said this week that each day on the training ground with his side before the tournament will be crucial. The new Premier League season’s final round of games before pausing for the tournament will be on the weekend of 12–13 November. England will face Iran in their opener on 21 November.
The opener will be England’s first-ever meeting with Iran, who will be competing in their sixth World Cup and their third in a row. In a World Cup hosted by Qatar, it is perhaps fitting that England face a Middle Eastern nation first.Embed from Getty Images
Southgate’s side will face the United States in their second match. The two sides have a bit of history at football’s premier tournament. The USA stunned England by beating them 1–0 in the 1950 World Cup, despite the Americans being an entirely amateur team. Then in 2010, Fabio Capello’s England squandered a third-minute lead against the States to draw their opener 1–1, as goalkeeper Robert Green let Clint Dempsey’s infamously weak shot squirm under his body and in for the equaliser.
The United States missed out on the last World Cup in 2018, but qualified earlier this week despite a 2–0 defeat to Costa Rica.
England’s third and final group opponents will be the winner of the final European play-off route, which remains undecided due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine and Scotland will face off in June, before the winner faces another UK side, Wales, in a straight shootout final. England have faced Scotland, Ukraine and Wales in European Championship final tournaments before, but have never played any of them in the FIFA World Cup.
On the face of it, England have landed another friendly draw under Southgate. But it’s worth remembering that as England were a seeded team, by design they were always going to face three teams weaker than them on paper. That said, avoiding the likes of Germany, Uruguay and the Netherlands increases England’s odds of progressing.Embed from Getty Images
The United States blow hot and cold, and while they have capable players like Giovanni Reyna of Borussia Dortmund and Christian Pulisic of Chelsea, they were certainly the most attractive-looking proposition in Pot 2 from an English perspective.
Iran are a bit of an unknown quantity, but have only lost once — against Son Heung-min’s South Korea — since October 2019. They may not regularly face the level of opponents England do, but like Southgate’s side they too have a strong defence and a very impressive record of keeping clean-sheets. In the last year, they have conceded just five goals in 15 games. Their star man is Bayer Leverkusen striker Serdar Azmoun, who has 40 international goals in 62 caps.
Scotland and Wales need no introduction. England have a rich history against both home nations, and both will be eyeing up a match against England knowing the bravado of such a fixture could work in their favour. The pressure of England–Scotland seemed to play on England players’ minds last summer as Steve Clarke’s side came to Wembley and claimed a creditable 0–0 draw during Euro 2020. England would be comfortable favourites against both, even if Gareth Bale is a formidable beast when wearing the red of Wales.
Football is understandably the last thing Ukrainian players are thinking about at present. They were due to face Scotland last month but the tie had to be postponed due to the war. They have caused England one or two nervous moments in qualifiers in the last 15 years, but Southgate’s side thrashed them 4–0 in Rome in a one-sided Euros quarter-final last summer. They are a capable footballing side, but England would fancy their chances against a team they so comfortably brushed aside en route to last year’s continental final.Embed from Getty Images
Critics of Southgate’s reign say his team benefited from very presentable runs in the knockout rounds of both the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020, where they made the semi-finals and final respectively. That looks unlikely to repeat itself, as England could quite conceivably face France in the quarter-final, Belgium in the semi-final and — if they come through those two sizeable tasks — the world’s number one-ranked nation Brazil in the final.
Assuming the Netherlands top Group A (whose seeded team are hosts Qatar) and England top their own, a match against Senegal or Ecuador in the round of 16 would prove a stern task, but certainly a surmountable one for the Three Lions.
You can only read so much into World Cup draws. The surprise recent runs of Ghana (quarter-finalists in 2010), Costa Rica (quarter-finalists in 2014) and Croatia (finalists in 2018) show that predictions often go out the window. England will be broadly pleased with their group stage opponents. However, Southgate will be slightly frustrated that England do not benefit from an extra day or so of rest. And should England reach the latter stages, they are likely to be engaged in some blockbuster matches. Fans will feel if any England generation is to rise to that challenge, then it is this one.