England haunted by form fears going into World Cup opener against Iran

Three Lions set to keep faith with old favourites despite concerns over Maguire and Sterling ahead of Qatar 2022

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In his last three matches in the Uefa Champions League, Mehdi Taremi has struck five goals. He also set up both Porto’s goals in the victory over Bayer Leverkusen immediately before that hot streak.

Without Taremi’s contributions, above all his opener in the tense 2-1 victory in the final group game against Atletico Madrid, his club would not have reached the knockout round of what is regarded as club football’s most elevated competition.

Safe to report, then, that Iran’s Taremi reported for duty for the World Cup in very fine form.

Harry Maguire, meanwhile, played his last Champions League game in March, a tense defeat to Atletico that had swung away from Manchester United when Joao Felix sneaked ahead of the defender to establish an early lead in the tie.

This season, United are not in the Champions League at all. As for the Premier League, Maguire has slipped down the pecking order, making United’s starting XI for just four league games, and more often on the bench when he has been available.

Yet there is every probability that Maguire will be among the central defenders tasked with marshalling the lively Taremi when England and Iran meet at the Khalifa International Stadium on Sunday, the nation ranked fifth in the world by Fifa against the one ranked 20th.

Form argues against Maguire’s selection, given the range of alternatives available to manager Gareth Southgate, but there is a loyalty felt by the England manager for the 29-year-old.

Maguire is valued for his leadership, his impact at set pieces in both penalty areas, among other qualities. He has a special Three Lions status, as much a symbol of Southgate’s time in charge as the manager’s waistcoats used to be.

Southgate’s tenure is now into its seventh year, a period of enough success to earn the coach the same sort of trust from a demanding English public as he places in a select number of senior players even when their form dips.

At the last World Cup, Maguire, who had one competitive cap when the tournament began, galvanised England’s progress to the semi-final. He began last year’s European Championship suffering an ankle injury but, once recovered, was returned to the XI for England's advance to the final, a best-ever showing in that competition.

That record makes Southgate, who started in the role as a caretaker, the highest-achieving England manager since the country won their only World Cup, at home in 1966.

So much for the positives. They are glittering highlights in danger of fading further and further back in the rear-view mirror. Southgate is also the England manager who oversaw relegation in the Uefa Nations League, the consequence of an alarming slump.

Harry Maguire, right, is an almost certain starter for England despite having lost his place in Manchester United's team. AFP

England have not won a competitive match for a year; their six Nations League games yielded three points from a possible 18. They have kept just two clean sheets in their last eight matches. They lost 4-0 at home to Hungary in June, a humiliation Maguire at least was largely spared because it was the only Nations League fixture he did not start.

It all leaves England with a dark cloud of poor team form to carry into a hot, sun-beaten first challenge in Doha. Matters of individual form create their own heat around Southgate, under more sustained criticism for his perceived tactical caution as he has ever been.

He cited “a poor run of form at the wrong time” for leaving Tammy Abraham, the Roma striker, out of his squad; yet his belief in the know-how, the pedigree and experience of the likes of Maguire and Raheem Sterling – one Chelsea goal since mid-September – overrides short-term concerns, and counts for more than a tally of minutes on the pitch or freshly impressive finishing statistics.

And, like most coaches embarking on the unique tournament conditions of Qatar 2022, where the weather will not always recommend woollen waistcoats and preparation time has been squeezed, Southgate cannot rely on the usual calculus of how much, or how little, recent form matters.

England captain Harry Kane, right, has scored 51 goals in 75 games for the Three Lions. AP

The majority of his players come from the Premier League, generally regarded as the most physically demanding of elite domestic leagues, which only paused to make space for the World Cup eight days ago. For that, says Southgate, “we’ve got to adapt better than everybody else”.

Some of his peers may disagree. France and Senegal are adapting to fresh bad news, having waved goodbye, because of injury, to Karim Benzema, holder of the Ballon d’Or, and Sadio Mane, African Footballer of the Year, marquee strikers.

Southgate has his world-class goalscorer, Harry Kane, fit and aiming to match his Golden Boot from the last World Cup, albeit that Kane’s Tottenham Hotspur manager, Antonio Conte observes Kane has been “exhausted” lately.

Fatigued or not, Kane will take on what is likely to be a deep-set, well-drilled Iran defence with 15 goals from his last 19 Spurs games. That’s enviable form from the England player Iran must fear most.

Updated: November 21, 2022, 2:33 AM
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