Doha: England could not have done a better job of lowering expectations than by going six competitive games without a win heading into the World Cup but when they kick off against Iran on Monday a nation will again start dreaming.
Under Gareth Southgate’s watch England have been agonisingly close to winning major silverware for the first time since 1966 - first with a semi-final run at the 2018 World Cup in Russia and then losing to Italy on penalties in the Euro 2020 final.
There is a nagging sense that those near-misses might be as close as England come and that opportunity has passed them by. But, despite a woeful run of results, they arrived in Qatar as one of the teams more likely to be crowned world champions.
For that to happen, a fast start will be essential and a Group B opener against Iran offers that opportunity, even if it would be dangerous to underestimate a team managed by Carlos Queiroz and 20th in FIFA’s rankings.
In their six-game winless run in the Nations League, England lacked creativity and goals and were occasionally chaotic in defence - especially in a 4-0 home loss to Hungary.
A thrilling 3-3 draw with Germany in their final game before the World Cup renewed some optimism and Southgate’s squad certainly looks equipped to control a group which will also pitch them against the United States and Wales.
“If England go into all three of these matches fully focused, playing to the best of their potential, they should win all three,” former U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel told Bookmakers.com as he looked ahead to the Group B games.
“Iran are a well-structured team, not easy to break down. And they also have some very good technical players - and the conditions, they’re going to be right up Iran’s street.
“I think England will win but I think it’ll be hard.” England fans, the majority of whom will be watching on sofas and in pubs back home, have rightly lauded Southgate but patience is beginning to run out.
His tactics are often seen as over-cautious, especially against quality opposition. But do not expect to see the England manager load his starting lineup against Iran with flair players such as James Maddison, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden.
One player guaranteed to start is captain and goalscorer Harry Kane who has 51 goals from 75 caps and at the last World Cup won the Golden Boot with six, while 19-year-old midfielder Jude Bellingham could be Southgate’s trump card.
Iran’s first ever meeting with England should be a moment of national pride but poltiical events in the country have overshadowed what will be their third successive World Cup.
A wave of anti-government protests have swept the country and Iranian sportswomen and men have used international competitions to show their support following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police.
Bayer Leverkusen striker Sardar Azmoun has voiced his support for protesters, Iran’s former great Ali Daei has refused to attend the tournament and there is talk of Iran’s players not singing the anthem or celebrating goals.
Winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh, however, said this week that the players were focused only on trying to go past the group phase for the first time in their history.
“What I learned has always been to respect the jersey, to respect the Team Melli no matter what,” he told reporters.
“At the end of the day, when football comes together, we can make joy, we can bring happiness to the people.”