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England favourites but draw gives Iran, USA and Wales hope

Clashes between England, Iran, the United States and Wales mean World Cup Group B is laced with political tension, but also boasts the highest average FIFA world ranking of any of the sections in Qatar.

Despite heading to the Middle East on the back of a six-game winless run, England undoubtedly start as favourites with Gareth Southgate’s men looking to finally end a 56-year wait to claim a major international trophy.

The Three Lions have come close recently, reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup four years ago and the final of Euro 2020 on home soil.

However, a hectic schedule for Southgate’s squad with their clubs and little preparation time could see them caught cold in the group stages.

Injury concerns are piling up in defence for England with Reece James and Kyle Walker doubts to make the squad, while Harry Maguire is short of match fitness after falling down the pecking order at Manchester United.

At the other end of the field, it was a lack of creativity from open play that saw England relegated from the UEFA Nations League as they twice failed to beat any of Germany, Hungary or Italy in recent months.

A goal drought was washed away in a thrilling 3-3 draw with Germany at Wembley in their final competitive game before the tournament and the pressure is on Southgate to get the likes of Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham performing as regularly at international level as they do for their clubs.

England’s hopes could though come down to keeping captain Harry Kane fit as the Tottenham Hotspur striker bears down on becoming his country’s highest ever goalscorer at international level.

Kane is just two goals short of Wayne Rooney’s record of 53 and is one of the favourites to walk away with another Golden Boot as the World Cup’s top goalscorer.

Iran’s political preparation

Iran’s preparations have been besieged by political turmoil.

Protests have swept across the nation in the wake of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini following her arrest by the country’s morality police.

Activists, including former Iranian international Ali Karimi, have called on the team to make a stance in joining the protest movement with the eyes of the world upon them in Qatar.

FIFA have even been asked to throw Iran out of the competition and be replaced by Ukraine over the alleged use of Iranian drones by Russia in its war against Kyiv.

On the field, with former Real Madrid coach Carlos Queiroz back as manager, Iran beat Uruguay in a friendly in September to back up an impressive qualifying campaign.

However, they could be without star striker Sardar Azmoun due to a torn calf muscle.

A meeting with the United States brings back good memories for Team Melli of a 2-1 win in a politically-charged World Cup clash in 1998.

The Americans are back on the biggest stage after failing to qualify for Russia four years ago and have a squad now filled with experience at the highest level in Europe.

However, manager Gregg Berhalter has been heavily criticised for a lack of spark in a run of one win in five games heading to Qatar.

Wales are back at a World Cup for the first time since 1958 in what could be Gareth Bale’s farewell on the international stage.

Bale has helped inspire his country to the knockout stages of the last two European Championships, famously reaching the semi-finals in 2016.

At 33 and now featuring for LAFC, Bale is no longer the force he once was and managing he and Aaron Ramsey through three group games in eight days will be a challenge for Rob Page.

But Wales will still fancy their chances of getting through with their first two games against the USA and Iran before a grudge match against neighbours England.

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