Friday 25 November 2022 saw the first eight teams, from Groups A and B, play their second group matches in FIFA World Cup 2022 Qatar.
Politics were slowly starting to take a back-seat to what was happening on the pitch, as all teams had now played their first games of the tournament, with teams' futures (in the tournament) now on the line.
The debate regarding the One Love armband rumbles on. The FIFA President's words just before the start of the tournament offended many people, primarily from the LGBTQ+ community, with many fans staying away from the tournament. After FIFA banned the One Love (rainbow) armbands, England and other nations decided instead to wear anti-discrimination armbands under threat of being booked on the pitch. The issue is being discussed daily on television and in other media in-between the football matches.
Host nation Qatar took on Senegal at the Al Thumama Stadium, both having lost their opening games 2-0. A defeat today and their last games would be played only for pride. Ranked #18 by FIFA, Senegal on paper should win this match comfortably, with Qatar ranked #50, although the home side had much more support in the stadium. Senegal started the game by retaining possession and not risking losing the ball, even if they did make use of the flanks to spread the ball wide. Qatar struggled to get the ball and found themselves continually defending, and repelling, Senegal attacks. Half-way through the first half, Senegal had their best move so far in the game with Mendy's low shot just wide of the upright. They were ruing the loss of Bayern Munich (ex Liverpool) striker Sadio Mané who was injured prior to the tournament. On 28 minutes, Sabaly shot wide for Senegal. To their credit, Qatar's central defenders were nullifying the constant Senegal threat. Qatar did have one significant excursion upfield and felt aggrieved when the referee did not blow his whistle for a penalty when Afif was knocked off the ball by Senegal's Sarr. But on 40 minutes, Gueye latched onto a cross into the box (after a mistake by defender Khoukhi) and slotted the ball home past the despairing lunge of the Qatar goalkeeper, Barsham. 1-0 to Senegal. 7 minutes of added time announced. HT 1-0 to Senegal. So far in the tournament, Qatar have failed to get one shot on target. Just 3 minutes after the restart, Senegal got their second goal of the game, with Diehhiou flicking the ball into the back of the net from a corner. Qatar could have got a goal back soon afterwards, but Al Haj Fadlalla failed to connect with a header as a delightfully-weighted cross was delivered into the Senegal box. Qatar started to gain more possession as Senegal started to sit back. On the 62nd minute, Khoukhi had a shot saved and, 6 minutes later, Mendy pulled off a great save from Mohammad, their second shot on target. On 77 minutes, Qatar's perseverance paid off following a long cross-ball downfield, with Muntari heading home for their first goal of the World Cup. The stadium erupted as the crowd went wild as the deficit was reduced to 2-1. Both teams made substitutions to see out the game, Qatar seeking an equaliser. But it was Senegal who scored next, with Dieng latching on to a cut-back to rifle the ball past Barsham in Qatar's goal. 3-1. Qatar were not quite finished and quickly took a free kick with Al Haj Fadlalla shooting just wide with Mendy nowhere near. 6 added minutes announced.
The Netherlands played Ecuador in the next game at the Khalifa International Stadium. Ecuador had won their opening game against Qatar and had not conceded a goal since March; meanwhile, the Netherlands had an enviable goalscoring record going into this game. The game started tentatively but the Dutch broke down their opponents after just 5 minutes thanks to a cracking left-footed strike from outside the box by Gakpo to put the ball past the Ecuadir goalkeeper, Galíndez, for his 5th international goal. 1-0 to the Netherlands. Half-way through the half, Ecuador started to get into the game and began to attach the Dutch, with good crossing into the box only for the Dutch defence to remain firm, thanks mainly to van Dijk of Liverpool. Ecuador had a couple of corners and throw-in from near the Dutch box but they could not find a way through. On 31 minutes, Ecuador's Valencia almost got the equaliser, his rasping shot from outside the box saved by the fingertips of Nopoert in the Dutch goal. Ecuador were not lying down and were fighting back. 3 minutes added on. On 48 minutes, Ecuador had the ball in the back of the Dutch net but it was contentiously ruled out for offside. HT 1-0 for the Netherlands. Just 3 minutes after the re-start, Ecuador did equalise with Valencia pouncing on a spilled ball by the Dutch goalkeeper fir his 3rd goal of the tournament. No offside this time. 1-1. Game on! The game ebbed and flowed as the ball went from end to end, with both teams sensing victory was within their grasp. On another Ecuadorian attack, van Dijk blocked a Valencia shot, the rebound which Plata rocketed against the upright. The Netherlands were living dangerously with Ecuador in the ascendancy. Interestingly, in contrast to early in the first half, it was Ecuador who were the more skilful and confident on the ball, with the Netherlands being more physical and resorting to committing more fouls. 10 minutes left of normal time. With just 3 minutes of normal time left on the clock, Ecuador's goalscorer, Valencia, was stretchered off, apparently injured, and was one of two substitutions made by Ecuador. 6 minutes of added time. FT 1-1. All both sides need in their remaining games are draws to qualify for the knock-out phase.
Wales (19th in FIFA rankings) faced Iran (20th) in the day's early game at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium which had hundreds of empty seats visible from the start; but it was a sea of red with both sets of supporters wearing the same colours. In their first matches, Wales had come from behind to draw with the USA, but Iran had suffered a humiliating 6-2 loss to England. So, for Iran, this was a must-win game and a chance to gain some redemption. Unlike in their first game, the Iranian players did sing along to their national anthem. Played in 30C heat inside the stadium, this could be more challenging for the Welsh players who could not afford to lose the game with their next and last group game against one of the tournament favourites, England. In the early skirmishes, Wales had the first opportunity, with Williams shooting well over. Iran also tested the Welsh defence on a number of occasions early on, with a couple of crosses into Wales' box and a first shot on target on 6 minutes. This was the polar opposite of an Italian Serie A match where the ball would be kept on the ground and both sides would start off tentatively. Wales started to slow things down, building steadily from the back. On 11 minutes, Roberts crossed from the right and Wales' striker Moore forced a point-blank save from Hosseini, the Iranian goalkeeper, the first real opportunity of the match. On 15 minutes, Iran's Gholizadeh had the ball in the back of Wales' net after a poor cross-field ball by Roberts, only to be ruled offside. Two minutes later, Wales had a free kick on the Iranian goal-line, but Wilson could not find a Welsh head. On 25 minutes, Wales defender Joe Rodon made an important tackle to deny Iran's Azmoun a shot on goal following a great link-up with Taremi. Wales were enjoying more possession but Iran were harrying for every ball. Suddenly Gareth Bale had a shot from nothing but it lacked power and was easily saved by Hosseini. The game continued at a frantic pace with both teams having opportunities to break the deadlock. 4 added minutes. Taremi linked up again with Azmoun who shot wide from close range. Iran finished the half in the ascendancy. HT 0-0. The second half started as the first half finished with a lack of fluidity. Suddenly, on 51 minutes, the game sparked to life with Azmoun and then Gholizadeh hitting both posts within a few seconds, the second having been pushed onto the post by Welsh goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy. On 55 minutes, Iran attacked again. Fearing the worst, Wales then made a couple of substitutions, changing to a 4-3-3 formation, with Johnson and Dan James replacing Roberts and Harry Wilson. And Iran's Azmoun was replaced by Ansarifard due to cramp and fears of exacerbating a thigh injury. Iran were playing the better football and were creating more chances, but Ben Davies and Joe Rodon were keeping Wales in the game. Ezatolahi struck a long shot which was saved by Hennessey at full stretch; Wales could not clear the ball and Iran had a couple of corners but could not find the back of the net. On 75 minutes, Iran made three substitutions to try to find a winner. Wales started to see more of the ball but their passing let them down. On 83 minutes, Wales had arguably their best opportunity with good work around the box before Ben Davies blasted over. Seconds later Iran played a long ball with Wayne Hennessey racing off his line to fell an Iranian forward. The referee brandished a yellow card for the Welsh goalkeeper which was upgraded to red after VAR intervened. Danny Ward came on in goal, with Aaron Ramsey substituted. Following the free kick, Iran's Tarabi's pile-driver was too high. 9 added minutes. Drama to the end! On 98 minutes, Iran scored with a low, long-range strike from substitute Cheshmi. The Welsh players sank to their knees... Wales kicked off and list possession with Iran's Rezaeian slotting home a second goal. The Welsh fans were disconsolate. FT 2-0 for Iran. Iran were unrecognisable from the team thrashed 6-2 by England in their first match and fully deserved this win. Wales must beat England in their last group match on Tuesday to have any hopes of qualifying for the last 16.
England played the USA in the late match. This was a drab affair with England, despite their wonderful first game 6-2 demolition of Iran, second best for long periods, while the USA also entertain hopes of reaching the last 16. Harry Maguire, who had suffered a fair amount of criticism all season for his unconvincing displays for Manchester United, but with whom England's manager Gareth Southgate had remained loyal, was his side's stand-out player in defence. England were unimpressive and rode their luck when the USA's Weston McKennie missed an easy chance and Christian Pulisic struck the bar in the first half. But that was almost all that happened in the entire game that was of any note. Mason Mount did elicit a good save from USA goalkeeper Matt Turner just before the break. Apart from this, England were less than ordinary in what was arguably the tournament's most boring match to date. Gone had the attacking verve that lit up their win over Iran on the 2nd day of the tournament. Nevertheless, England remain favourites to qualify for the knockout stage, with the USA likely to join them if then can defeat Iran.