US overcome Iran in tense World Cup battle
The US progressed to the knockout stages at the FIFA World Cup as they defeated Iran 1-0 in a fraught encounter in Qatar.
Knowing that only a win would be enough for them to reach the last 16 of the tournament, the Americans edged to victory thanks to a first-half goal from Christian Pulisic.
The result meant the US leapfrogged Iran in the Group B standings, finishing on five points from their three games.
England sealed top spot in the group on seven points after a 3-0 win on Tuesday against regional rivals Wales, who ended their campaign winless in Qatar.
England will meet Senegal in the last 16, while the US have a knockout date with Group A winners the Netherlands.
Given the context of longstanding tensions between the two nations, it was perhaps inevitable that the Iran-US clash at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha would be accompanied by political undertones.
Indeed, much of the build-up was dominated by accusations of disrespect from the American side, after a social media post from the US soccer federation account featured an altered version of the Iranian flag without the emblem of the Islamic Republic.
American soccer officials later confirmed that the gesture was intended as a show of support for the protests in Iran which appeared after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September.
Iranian representatives responded by saying they would pursue the matter with FIFA, while US head coach Gregg Berhalter used his press conference on the eve of the game to apologize.
Once the football finally took center stage, it was the US who enjoyed the lion’s share of possession in the opening stages, albeit without any end product.
Chelsea forward Pulisic directed a header into the arms of Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand after 10 minutes, before Timothy Weah spurned two chances – first when he headed straight at Beiranvand and again when he fired a shot well over the crossbar when inside the box.
Iran had their own chance when Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun threatened, but Tim Ream snuffed out the danger for the US.
The breakthrough came in the 38th minute when Sergino Dest raced in behind the Iranian defense on the right flank, directing a header across goal for the arriving Pulisic to turn the ball in.
Pulisic injured himself in process as he collided painfully with Beiranvand, and the US winger would eventually be replaced at half-time.
Weah thought he had doubled the lead for the US in first-half injury time when he beat the Iran backline and slid the ball smartly beyond Beiranvand, but the finish was ruled out by VAR for a marginal offside.
Iran finished the half without registering a shot, highlighting that they had much to do to get into the game.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Carlos Queiroz’s men started the second half with significantly more urgency, forging their best chance of the match in the 52nd minute when Ramin Rezaeian sent the ball into the box and substitute Saman Ghoddos stole in front of Dest, but he directed his header over the bar.
Iran spurned a chance on 65 minutes when Ghoddos curled an effort wide of Matt Turner’s goal, and pressed frantically in the closing stages as Morteza Pouraliganji sent a diving header just wide of the post.
Iran appealed desperately for a penalty deep into injury time, arguing that Cameron Carter-Vickers had tugged down Taremi in the box, but neither referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz nor the VAR was interested in their protests.
Iran were ultimately unable to find the goal which would have sent them into the knockout stages at the Americans’ expense, ending the group campaign with a win and two defeats from their three outings.
The US avenged their 1998 World Cup loss to the Iranians and remain unbeaten in Qatar.
They will, however, be expected to face a stern test against the Dutch when they meet at Khalifa International Stadium on Saturday.