The day starts with a bang, and quite a bang it is. Poor old Mehdi Taremi.
Wales/Iran is scoreless with time running out when Wayne Hennessey, a man with more e’s to his name than your local drug dealer, charges out from his goal and enacts a kung fu move on Taremi.
All of a sudden we’ve been whisked back 40 years. It is a breathless night in Seville, it is the World Cup semi-final and Harald Schumacher has done a, well, Harald Schumacher on the unfortunate Patrick Battiston. (Younger readers: key those words into YouTube and voila.) Schumacher got away with it.
Hennessey, a man who three years ago told the FA he “didn’t know what a Nazi salute was”, does not; it is a stonewall red card and Senor Escobar from Guatemala eventually brandishes the relevant item. Taremi, thankfully for him, is merely shaken as opposed to being knocked unconscious and losing half his teeth.
Sean Collier tweets from Camross to observe that if they’d had VAR in 1982 it would surely have cleared Schumacher. Quite.
Wales don’t get away with it either. Injury time, not for the first occasion in this tournament, proves to be its own entity and Iran employ it to score two goals. On BBC, where Gaby Logan is hosting a panel that features Ian Rush and Ashley Williams, they couldn’t be much more Welsh, there is sympathy for the losers but an acceptance that the better team won.
“Enormous congratulations to Iran and Carlos Querioz,” says Gaby, who apropos of the 7pm game adds that England have never beaten the US at the World Cup. “Let’s not pretend it’s a fait accompli.” Gloriously the subtitles render this as “fatal company”.
Senegal beat Qatar in the lunchtime kickoff. Blah. The competition hosts seemed to spend most of 2021 facing Ireland in friendlies. They may in retrospect conclude that this might not have been the optimum preparation for the real thing.
Ecuador versus the Netherlands at 4pm. A goal early in the first half for the latter, a goal early in the second half for the former. Nothing much more to say. “The Dutch are very very average,” Richie Sadlier laments on RTÉ.
Finally to the 7pm non-fait accompli. Harry Kane, whose ankle is the modern equivalent of what Bryan Robson’s shoulder was a generation ago, is starting. There’ll only be one winner, according to the lads in Montrose.
The US will need Christian Pulisic on form, they agree, but according to Didi Hamann he won’t be. “He flatters to deceive half the time. If he’s the player you hang your hopes on you don’t have much hope.” Ouch.
The temperature in the Al Bayt is 23 degrees, George Hamilton informs us. Damn it anyway. I’d been waiting all week to crack a gag about a rainy night in Doha.
The US press high. Weston McKennie, much more involved than he was against Wales, goes close. Pulisic, who’s clearly heard about Didi’s doubts, slashes one off the crossbar. Ray Houghton, impressed with the underdogs' energy and crisp passing, deems them the better side in the first half. They are not keeping fatal company in England. Not yet anyway.
At the interval Stephen Kelly calls for Jack Grealish to be brought on in order to carry the ball through the lines. Gareth Southgate not being the kind of guy Kenny Rogers sang about, the favourites resume as was.
Harry Maguire spends most of the third quarter clearing corners out of his own box. Tyler Adams is pulling all sorts of strings in midfield for the underdogs. (Leeds fans, Mr Collier included: is he usually this good?) After Monday’s six-goal salvo England look to be, as the statisticians would put it, regressing to the mean.
Ray notes, to his audible surprise, that Maguire has “defended quite well”. “Hasn’t done anything wrong,” George agrees. Who ever claimed that £78m doesn’t go a long way these days? (Man U fans: is he usually this good? On second thoughts, forget I said that.)
A random sample of quotes from the RTÉ panel afterwards. Just awful, awful stuff. (Richie.) Desperate. (Didi.) Lacklustre. (Didi.) No imagination, no urgency, no nothing. (Didi.)
Kane materialises to point out, justifiably, that it’s not going to be “a landslide every time we play”. Richie agrees but insists that England “are a damn sight better” than they’ve just showed. That’s fair enough too.
They finish the group against Wales next Tuesday. Let’s not pretend it’s a fait accompli. Or even a fatal company.