Tuesday, February 7, 2023

World Cup round-up: USA have the balls to hang on

Good morning.

Last night I decided to watch the USA v Iran game because I thought that’s where the jeopardy in the group would be. Commiserations to any Welsh readers, but the aging legs of Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale never made me feel confident they could beat England. Two goals from Marcus Rashford and one from Phil Foden were enough for a 3-0 win in that one, and Gareth Southgate’s side top the group. There was no Arsenal involvement with Bukayo Saka left out and left on the bench, Aaron Ramsdale unlikely to play unless something happens to Pickford and his T-Rex arms, and Ben White absent through illness.

Meanwhile, I thought the USA played really well in the first half. They dominated the ball and the territory, the midfield in particular was very solid, and they deservedly went in 1-0 up at the break. The goal was really well worked, Sergino Dest’s header across the box was attacked well by Christian Pulisic who knocked it home at some personal cost. It looked like the Iranian keeper’s knee made contact with his special area but, as painful as that can be – and most of us who have played football have suffered that particular blow once or twice – you can usually run it off after the initial pain subsides.

He was replaced at half-time, taken to hospital, and in a statement later the US said, “Christian Pulisic has been diagnosed with a pelvic contusion and his status is day-to-day.”

It sounds a bit more serious than a whack to the goolies, but perhaps indeed he was served up some crushed nuts. Either way, a sore one for the Chelsea man, who was probably the Americans’ best attacking player on the pitch in the first half. And I think they missed him in the second period. There were shades of the Wales game in this one, where a very good first half was followed up by a not so good second. Whether there’s so much energy expended in the opening 45 and it’s hard to sustain, or too many changes that disrupt the rhythm, I don’t know. I do think there’s a bit of a quality gap in some of the lads coming off the bench, and at just 1-0 we all know the game state plays a part.

This graph, which shows you attacking balance of the game, tells the story well. The USA on top, Iran start to come back into it, and then in the final stages the side that is behind start to dominate as the one leading sit back to try and hang on.

Iran didn’t really threaten Matt Turner’s goal too much. There was one which went not far wide, but he didn’t have too many saves to make, and I thought the Arsenal man was solid again. It was just that any attacking intent from the USA evaporated, when they did get the ball forward they had a lad up top who made Yaya Sanogo look like Pele, and the ball kept coming back at them and back at them. With all the subs and some stoppages, 9+ minutes of injury time must have been torturous for US fans, but they got there in the end and qualified for the knock-out stages.

They will face the Netherlands who, as you would expect, beat Qatar. The hosts finished bottom of their group. England will face Senegal on Sunday after they beat Ecuador 2-1. That could certainly be a lively one.

Today, Argentina take on Poland and Saudi Arabia play Mexico. Lionel Messi v Wojciech Szczesny. All four teams can qualify from this group so it should make for an exciting duo of evening games. Before that, with France qualified it’s possible we might see William Saliba make his World Cup debut against Tunisia, while Australia face Denmark in the other game to decide who goes through from Group D.

Right, let’s leave it there for this morning. Back tomorrow.

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