DOHA, Qatar (AFP) — Christian Pulisic fired the United States into the last 16 of the World Cup on Tuesday as the Americans downed Iran 1-0 in their politically charged grudge match.
Chelsea star Pulisic bundled home the do-or-die Group B game’s only goal on 38 minutes to set up a second round clash with Group A winners the Netherlands on Saturday.
The victory was no less than US coach Gregg Berhalter’s youthful side deserved in what was only the third international soccer clash between the bitter ideological rivals.
The build-up to a pulsating showdown had been marked by steadily escalating tension, with Iran’s Football Federation on Sunday demanding FIFA sanction US Soccer for posting a modified version of its country’s flag on social media.
But despite an electrifying atmosphere at Doha’s Al Thumama Stadium, Tuesday’s game played out without controversy as the US avenged its 1998 World Cup defeat to Iran to send the Asian qualifiers crashing out of the tournament.
Iran’s fans had roared their team onto the field at the start of the game amid a deafening cacophony of air-horns and cheers from the crowd of 42,127.
But despite the intimidating reception, it was the Americans who looked more comfortable, quickly establishing their dominance.
US captain Tyler Adams and Juventus’ Weston McKennie controlled proceedings in midfield to leave Iran struggling to gain a foothold.
The US signaled its attacking ambition after only two minutes, Pulisic surging forward menacingly before being dispossessed. That was a shape of things to come as the team laid siege to the Iranian goal.
Valencia midfielder Yunus Musah shot over the bar and Pulisic just failed to get enough power on a header after a cross from Antonee Robinson.
Fullback Sergino Dest was a constant threat down the right flank for the Americans, whipping over a cross in the 17th minute that Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand could only parry.
After sustained US pressure, the breakthrough finally came in the 38th minute.
A brilliant crossfield pass from McKennie picked out Dest down the right.
The AC Milan defender headed back across goal and Pulisic was on hand to bravely finish.
There was alarm for US fans with Pulisic needing sustained treatment after a heavy collision with Beiranvand, but it was the Iranians and their noisy fans who were left winded by the goal.
The crowd instantly became more subdued and the US twice came close to doubling its lead before half-time. Josh Sargent and Tim Weah combined well with a dazzling counter-attack but the final ball went astray.
Then in injury time McKennie’s sublime pass found Weah who finished brilliantly past Beiranvand only to be ruled just offside.
Knowing that an equalizer would send them into the second round, the Iranians stepped up the pressure in the second half.
But substitute Saman Ghoddos squandered two gilt-edged chances to get his team into the match, heading over from close range before blazing a shot over the bar on the 65th minute with the whole goal to aim at.
Saeid Ezatolahi curled a long-range shot over the bar soon afterward as the Americans continued to live dangerously.
Iran threatened again inside the final 10 minutes when Ali Karimi just failed to get on the end of a teasing cross by Ezatolahi.
A diving header from Morteza Pouraliganji whistled just wide in injury time and then Mehdi Taremi had calls for a penalty after a tangle with Cameron Carter Vickers waved away to leave Americans’ nerves jangling before their team hung on for a famous win.
England also advanced Tuesday out of Group B after beating Wales 3-0 to qualify for the round of 16.
Marcus Rashford’s brace and another strike from Phil Foden gave England a comfortable win and ended Wales’ first World Cup campaign since 1958 at the group stage.
With the two providing the cutting edge so lacking in their previous match — a dour goalless draw against the United States — England won for just the second time in their last nine games.
A spluttering first half showed the Three Lions still have room for improvement as they chase a first major trophy since the 1966 World Cup.
But the ruthless way they demolished Wales after the break provided encouragement ahead of Sunday’s showdown with Group A runners-up Senegal.
While England fans regard Germany and Scotland as their main rivals, Wales fans have never hidden how much they enjoy getting one over on their neighbor.
The Wales squad was famously filmed celebrating England’s embarrassing Euro 2016 exit against Iceland, while Welsh striker Kieffer Moore recently said he would love to knock the English out of the World Cup.
With those slights in mind, condemning Wales to elimination was a welcome bonus for England.
But more importantly, the team eased the angst that had mounted since it was booed off after the lethargic United States stalemate that followed its 6-2 rout of Iran in the group opener.