Christian Pulisic was decisive as the United States beat Iran 1-0 to secure their place in the last 16 of the World Cup as geopolitics briefly took a back seat at Al Thumama Stadium.
Due to the long-strained relationship between the two countries politically and the ongoing civil unrest in Iran, the build-up to Tuesday’s Group B clash was dominated by talk of almost anything but football.
Once the game settled, however, the USA’s superiority was abundantly clear and Iran were fortunate to only trail by Pulisic’s goal at the break, with Timothy Weah having one disallowed.
Carlos Queiroz’s side did at least manage a shot after the break, but the USA had enough to see out a slender – albeit deserved – victory and set up a last-16 clash with Group A winners the Netherlands.
After an emotionally charged opening that saw both sides show purpose, the USA began to probe with the greater regularity.
Weah let Iran off the hook just before the half-hour, taking an early header – which led to an easy save – unaware he had time for the ball to drop.
Pulisic gave Alireza Beiranvand no chance 10 minutes later, though.
Sergino Dest headed Weston McKennie’s exquisite pass into the danger zone and Pulisic slammed home while colliding with Beiranvand, ultimately forcing the Chelsea man off at the interval.
Weah strayed just offside before scoring what he thought was the USA’s second, and half-time substitute Saman Ghoddos almost capitalised as he headed over just after the break.
Iran enjoyed a lot of late pressure but their efforts did not yield an equaliser, with Morteza Pouraliganji heading agonisingly wide and Mehdi Taremi failing to convert from close range in stoppage time.
What does it mean? Young USA make another statement ahead of
Gregg Berhalter’s starting XI was the youngest named by any team at the World Cup to this point, yet they handled the occasion – and pressure – remarkably well.
Few would have said Iran had the more talented squad, but backed by a vociferous crowd and fired up emotionally by the unrest at home, this was their final.
While Iran were able to apply more pressure in the second half, Berhalter’s men proved they had the necessary steel to see out the job and go through with group winners England. Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands will not faze the Americans.
Pulisic importance laid bare by absence
Pulisic went off at the break, presumably as a consequence of smashing into Beiranvand while scoring. While the USA got the job done without him, he was sorely missed in the second half as their shot count went from nine before half-time to two after.
Adams caught the eye, ran the show
Not only did Tyler Adams have more touches than anyone else (84), he also completed the most passes (62) and proved effective defensively, tallying a team-high three successful tackles and 12 recoveries as he swept up impressively in midfield.
Key Opta facts
– USA have now reached the knockout stages of the World Cup in three consecutive appearances at the competition, doing so in 2010 and 2014 previously having been eliminated at this stage in 2006.
– Iran have now failed to get past the opening group phase at each of their six World Cup appearances (18 games); only Scotland (23) have played more games at the tournament with all of them coming in the opening group phase.
– USA have recorded a clean sheet in each of their last two World Cup games, as many as in their previous 28 games in the tournament. It is also the first time they have done so in successive games at the tournament since their first two in 1930.
– Iran’s four shots – all of which came in the second half, two in added time – is their second-fewest in a World Cup game, only having fewer against the Netherlands in 1978 (three).
– Pulisic has been involved in both of USA’s goals in Qatar so far (one goal, one assist). Since 1966, only Landon Donovan in 2010 (three, all goals) has been directly involved in more goals for them at a single edition of the tournament.
The USA will face the Netherlands at the Khalifa International Stadium on Thursday. Iran head home.
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