Matt Maher: Yes, it was only Iran but England were impressive

England’s opening display at the World Cup was the type which should fill supporters with optimism.

England's Raheem Sterling celebrates with teammates after scoring his side's third goal during the World Cup group B soccer match between England and Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Monday, Nov. 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein).
England's Raheem Sterling celebrates with teammates after scoring his side's third goal during the World Cup group B soccer match between England and Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Monday, Nov. 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein).

Yes, it was only Iran but in previous tournaments it was also only supposed to be Algeria, or Iceland too. No win should ever be taken for granted. Just ask Argentina.

More pleasing than the emphatic 6-2 scoreline was the manner of the performance. England looked organised, slick and – in contrast to some of the other major nations – ready to play from the first whistle.

It was all a far cry from those glorified friendlies in the Nations League. No doubt some of those fans who berated Gareth Southgate so brutally during June’s 4-0 defeat to Hungary at Molineux, even calling for his head, felt just a slight pang of regret.

At the same time... it was only Iran. While Carlos Queiroz’s team entered the tournament with a reputation for being stubborn opponents, the reality is they are no great shakes. The two goals they scored against England took their total tally in World Cup finals to 11, while their prior record of just two defeats in 22 matches looks far less impressive when assessing their opposition.

Granted, they did recently beat Uruguay and draw with Senegal, yet the bulk of the run was achieved through qualifiers against the heavyweight powers of Iraq, Syria and the UAE. Neither can their two matches against Cambodia, won by an aggregate score of 24-0, have been particularly taxing.

In short, England’s first match of the World Cup was also the easiest they will face. Far tougher tests lie ahead and it is how the Three Lions fare in those which will ultimately determine their fate in Qatar and quite possibly define Southgate’s legacy.

Since taking charge in 2016 Southgate has had little difficulty in getting the Three Lions to win matches in which they are favoured. Pulling off a major result – of the type required to win silverware – is what has so far eluded him, albeit only narrowly at Euro 2020.

Monday was encouraging but the test England face is to maintain that form for the real challenges waiting down the line.

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