England’s quest for glory in Qatar got off to a dream start as Bukayo Saka’s brace helped Gareth Southgate’s stars cruise to a 6-2 victory against Iran in their World Cup opener.
Having reached the semi-finals four years ago and finished as Euro 2020 runners-up last summer, the Three Lions arrived among the favourites despite a six-match winless run and Nations League relegation.
England ended that wait for a victory in style on Monday as superb Saka scored twice in his first major tournament appearance since missing his spot-kick in last year’s European Championship final defeat to Italy.
Marcus Rashford has not represented the national team at all since missing his attempt in that shoot-out and netted within minutes of coming on in a thumping win that Jude Bellingham, Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish also scored in.
It was a remarkable way to start the tournament, with the Group B opener a night to savour given the challenging build-up to a tournament mired in controversies and questions about hosts Qatar’s suitability.
Southgate was thrilled by the result, but annoyed at conceding twice. "We have some good players and today they really delivered," he said. "Our attacking players look a threat, our defence in the first hour controlled the game and were patient. The midfield were excellent and our forwards looked a threat. It is a great maker to put down.
"I'm a bit fed up with the end of it. To win by that margin and play the way as we did for the majority of the game we have to be really happy. We looked ready. We wanted to be that type of team.
"They dealt with game really well, there were lots of stoppages but our pressing and movement was really good. I've got to be really happy but we should not be conceding two goals at that stage in the game.
"We will have to be right on our game against the USA. It is a great start but we have to be better.
"What I particularly liked was Jack Grealish's goal with Callum Wilson on. He could have been selfish but he was thinking of the team even at that moment. I'm a miserable so and so. I should be more excited but I have to keep the team on the right track."
There were empty seats at the Khalifa International Stadium due to its shoddy ticketing system and the fact Iran goalkeeper Ali Beiranvand was able to continue before leaving with suspected concussion was appalling.
As a result of that there was 14 minutes of stoppage time at the end of a first half to cherish for Southgate’s side in Al Rayyan. Teenager Bellingham expertly headed home his first international goal before Saka smashed home a stunning strike complemented by Sterling.
Saka added another before Mehdi Taremi scored for Iran, who were relieved that the Three Lions only managed to add two more through substitutes Rashford and Grealish.
England were on course to match their biggest World Cup win, only for Taremi to score a last-gasp penalty.
Goalscorer Bellingham said afterwards: "I told you I was saving that goal, really good day game for us. Six goals in a World Cup game is really impressive, regardless of who you play against. they came out really well, really strong, hard to break down and we didn't have anything clear for quite a while.
"With more goals we opened them up but the start was tough and we had to dig it out, even when we weren't getting it all our own way. Important that we learned how to create chances against those kind of sides. Bit disappointed about the two goals."