Wales 0-2 Iran: What result means for USMNT, Iran’s quality and Bale fails to inspire


Iran showed their quality with a deserved but last-minute 2-0 victory against Wales.

In a cagey match that was more akin to a match seen in the knockout rounds, Iran were the superior team through the second half, creating numerous chances but failing to capitalise.

There was no debating Wayne Hennessey’s red card, but still, it took Iran until deep into extra time to finally break the deadlock. Roozbeh Cheshmi and Ramin Rezaeian dealing the sucker punches to Wales in the 98th and 101st minute.

Phil Hay, Liam Thamre, Dermot Corrigan and Michael Bailey analyse the key talking points

Iran show their quality

Many had (wrongly) written off Iran after they were comprehensively beaten by England. There is a reason Iran are ranked 20th in the world and the top Asian side.

Carlos Queiroz’s defence-first tactics had seen them concede just twice at the 2018 World Cup, in a group containing Spain and Portugal.

His inclusion of both Sardar Azmoun and Medhi Taremi pointed to a more attacking set-up, though the 4-1-4-1 shape is typical of Iran. His hooking of Azmoun on 67 minutes, even with Iran in the ascendency, is archetypal of Queiroz.

In the first half they looked particularly threatening in attacking transition, playing with a degree of directness and were all-but one perfectly executed pass away from dissecting the Wales defence.

And they laid an onslaught of the Wales goal early in the second half, hitting the post twice in nine seconds.

Across the full match they outshot Wales 21 to 10 and had more corners (seven versus two), despite having the minority share of the ball (38 per cent).

Enter Cheshmi as a substitute on 78 minutes. Iran had knocked and knocked on the door but did not look like breaking the deadlock. And then the centre-back fired home from way outside the area.

It is the first time in 10 games at World Cups that Iran have beaten a European opponent.

What the result means for USMNT

Thursday was the day for eating turkey and giving thanks in the United States.

With the clock on 90-plus-eight minutes, USMNT would looking good for extending the gratitude for another 24 hours, with 10-man Wales and Iran drawing 0-0 at the Ahmed bin Ali Stadium.

It would have been the best possible result for the US, effectively giving the US a free hit against England and still holding high hopes they would reach the knockout stages even if they lost their second game of the tournament.

Then came the family arguments, turkey hangover and sold-out Black Friday deals in the shape of two Iran goals. 

The fact Iran deserved them will be of little consolation to Gregg Berhalter and his team. The result leaves USA most likely needing to beat Iran in their final Group B game on Thursday to remain in the tournament. 

And the best platform for that would be claiming at least a point – if not better – from their clash with England later today. 

From a draw that looked like offering the USA that thankful opportunity to hold fate in their own hands, it’s a far more unsavoury reality they now face.

Michael Bailey

A red card that shouldn’t have needed VAR

There are lots of frustrations with VAR but one of them is the suspicion that referees are less and less willing to make obvious decisions because of the safety net of video replays to cover their backs.

Wayne Hennessy’s dismissal late on against Iran is about as blatant a red card as this World Cup or any World Cup will see – not quite on the levels of Harald Schumacher but dangerous, out of control, miles outside his box and without the slightest touch on the ball.

For the referee, Mario Escobar, to issue a booking first was laughable and it would be good to know how on earth he came to that conclusion. Certain incidents should not need VAR, unless robots really are destined to take over. 

Phil Hay

Wales have gaping holes in midfield

Often it is Wales who are carving teams apart on the counter-attack but the theme of the second half was Wales losing possession and Iran hitting them quickly in transition.

Theoretically, Rob Page’s 3-5-2 shape should offer plenty of protection in central midfield but the personnel are slightly too attacking.

Their wide centre-backs lacked cover, with an ambitious Wales midfield of Ramsey, Wilson and Ampadu lacking in defensive sensibilities — there was one occasion where the latter of the trio ended up on the floor after being dribbled past on the counter-attack.

The starting midfield looked to be playing the occasion rather than the game. Long passes towards Moore often led to turnovers and Iran looked to transition quickly.

But for better decision-making and execution from Iran and Wales would have been out of sight considerably sooner.

Wayne Hennessey’s red card will draw focus for how bad the tackle was, but the fact he was required to come so far out of his goal is due to Wales being so over-exposed.

Sending Kieffer Moore on for the second half of Wales’ draw with the USA was a bright move from Rob Page and the change Wales were crying out for. Given how the balance of that game swung with him on the pitch, he was always going to start against Iran.

Moore would like to think of himself as more than a basic target man but a player with his physique invites a certain style of football. It was not that Wales had to be wholly route one or painfully direct but it made sense to work to Moore’s strengths, exploiting his height in the construction of attacks or the delivery of the final ball.

With Gareth Bale alongside him, flick-ons from Moore were liable to be dangerous, inviting Bale to drive in behind Iran’s defence. As it was, Wales barely mobilised that tactic at all. Wayne Hennessy hit the forward once all game. Moore and Bale were able to find each other only four times. There were very few well-placed crosses for Moore to throw his head at and it was a low delivery from Connor Roberts, curled in from the right, which Moore got a foot to when Iran’s goalkeeper, Hossein Hosseini, denied him after 11 minutes.

Wales almost seemed to get stuck between ideas. Their line-up allowed them to work the percentages but they did not make the most of Moore in that way. It wasn’t that he saw nothing of the ball, more that the possession he had was not particularly good. His early opportunity was the right idea – high-lying full-backs supplying accurate service into the box. But there was nowhere near enough of that.

Phil Hay

Bale had a frustrating first half as he struggled to influence the play. Nominally playing off target man Kiefer Moore, Bale had license to roam and link with midfield, but he had just 16 touches  in the first 45 minutes (fewest of any Wales player, and including seven completed passes). This was after averaging 50 per game during qualifying and in Monday’s Group B opener against the USA.

It was maybe unsurprising that Bale’s energy levels were not so high, given that before Monday he had only played 28 minutes with LAFC since September. But when he did get involved there were mishit cross-field passes, crosses blocked by defenders and running offside when trying to break in behind. 

Bale showed against the US he still has the quality and nous to make a difference, and midway through the first half came a potential Superman moment. A miscued defensive header dropped to him 25 yards out, but the first time volley trickled into the arms of Iran goalkeeper Sayed Hosseini.

With Iran pushing more forward after the break, Wales’ talisman player remained on the periphery. He was mostly waiting for others to make things happen for him – just past the hour mark Brennan Johnson put in a near-post cross, but an Iran defender got there before he could react.

As Iran pushed for what would have been a deserved winner late on, a tired looking Bale was mostly just watching from afar hoping his teammates could hang on.

Dermot Corrigan

Importance of Ezatolahi

Saeed Ezatolahi didn’t start for Iran in the team’s collapse against England – a controversial decision from Carlos Queiroz considering the difficulty of the opponent and Ezatolahi’s defensive prowess. The decision was one of a few that seemed to backfire when England ran riot over a disorganized Iran defensive unit. 

None of that was the case against Wales.

Ezatolahi came into the side at his customary central defensive midfield position and provided so much of what Iran sorely lacked against England. Out of possession, he was ever-present in dangerous areas, registering near the top of his squad in total duels, most of which he won. His most valuable contribution, however, was what he did once Iran won possession. Working alongside captain Ehsan Hajsafi, Iran’s workmanlike central midfielders were able to recover loose balls and turn those recoveries into breakaways along either wing, often hitting Sardar Azmoun in transition. 

Hajsafi lived every emotional moment of the game, at one point falling to the ground face-first when another Azmoun breakaway didn’t work out. He was replaced by Ali Karimi in the 83rd minute after cramping up, looking disappointed even as he applauded the Iran supporters along the sideline on the way back to the bench. 

Alexander Abnos

Is Joe Allen Wales’ key player?

The narrative with Wales is permanently focused on Bale but has the key player for Rob Page actually been one who has struggled to get himself on the pitch – Swansea City’s Joe Allen?

Allen is ticking on in years but he is a clever footballer whose tenacity and patience in controlling the midfield usually helps Wales. Ethan Ampadu is a good player in his own right but he has none of Allen’s experience and there were points against Iran where what was needed was someone who could assert themselves, pin Iran back and provide a platform to work with.

Wales were not good enough at building attacks or creating sustained pressure and while Bale was disappointingly peripheral, that was not really his fault. He can supply magic and come up with something from nothing but in the cold light of day, it was asking for a Hail Mary with Iran more aggressive, fluent and inventive.

Who knows how much of a difference Allen’s pressing and passing might have made had he been able to start? But Ampadu was isolated, Aaron Ramsey huffed and puffed and Harry Wilson tried without success to escape the fringes of the contest until he was substituted. The balance did not feel right and once Wilson and Connor Roberts went off, Wales’ shape was hard to discern at all.

Allen eventually appeared from the bench with 14 minutes to go – only for Wayne Hennessy to get himself sent off and Allen’s poor clearance to tee up Iran’s sensational first as the Iranians piled it on.

Positive influence was improbable by then.

Phil Hay

(Photo: David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)


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