Late red card changes everything for Iran, Wales — and USMNT

Al RAYYAN, Qatar — Iran substitutes Rouzbeh Cheshmi and Ramin Rezaeian broke Wales’ hearts with thrilling stoppage-time goals in a dramatic 2-0 victory Friday that will have a major impact on the United States’ hopes of advancing from Group B.

While a likely draw would have been the best possible outcome for the US, the Iran victory is a second-best scenario, giving the Americans a terrific chance to qualifying with a win — either later Friday against England or Tuesday against Iran.

It looked like they were going to get their hoped-for draw in the early match at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, until dramatic late goals from Chesmi and Rezaeian — in the eighth and 11th minutes of added time, turned the contest, after Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy had been red-carded in the closing stages.

The wild finish brought tears all round.

Iran’s journey has been deeply emotional, with its own supporters booing the national anthem before the game in protest at their country’s governmental regime.

And Wales, so strong in the second half of Monday’s 1-1 tie with the United States, had several players burying their heads in their jerseys as their campaign reached a state of desperation.

Hennessy’s dismissal, in many ways, changed everything. Even though Iran was by far the stronger team after the interval, it appeared as though the game was heading for a stalemate.

But then Hennessy rushed from his area to try to clear a long ball forward, missed his clearance, and collided with advancing forward Mehdi Taremi. After initially being issued with a yellow, a VAR review changed the decision, upgrading it to an outright dismissal.

Following the results from the opening round of Group B matches Monday, there emerged a specific pecking order of outcomes that from this match that were most favorable for Gregg Berhalter’s USA squad.

A draw — especially one with no goals — was at the absolute top of that pile. However, an Iran win would have been the No. 2 option, and the USA now knows it can go clear at the top of the group with a win against England at Al Bayt Stadium.

A draw against England would bring a clear requirement for the last game — beat Iran to qualify. A loss to England would also require a win over Iran, while hoping Wales could not bounce back and beat England.

Iran, so disappointing in a 6-2 defeat to England, responded magnificently and played with spirit and tenacity throughout. From nowhere, they have become one of the stories of the tournament.

Ali Gholizadeh put the ball in the net after 15 minutes, only for his effort to be ruled out for offside. And Wales, even with Gareth Bale and big striker Keiffer Moore — who gave the USA so much trouble — in the starting lineup, were unable to generate much real threat.

In the second half, Iran’s fitness levels showed, and they began to dominate the proceedings. Coach Carlos Queiroz screamed in dismay after a double dose of misfortune, when Sardar Azmoun’s strike hit the post after he charged clear of the Wales defense and then, seconds later, Gholizadeh also rattled the woodwork with a curling effort from the edge of the box.

Azmoun, whose inclusion in the squad was in doubt last week after he added his voice to the widespread national protests in Iran, was replaced in the 69th minute after an afternoon of intense effort that perhaps should have generated greater reward.

In the end, it didn’t matter. Cheshmi collected the ball on the edge of the area and took his chance, as Wales tried to hold on grimly with 10 men. His strike seared past replacement keeper Danny Ward and into the net.

As Wales attempted to throw men forward, Iran broke once more, Rezaeian finishing off a swift counter-attack to complete a historic triumph — as Iran aims to reach the knockout round for the first time in history.

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Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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