Group B is easily one of the most exciting groups in the World Cup, if not the most. The USA is returning to the tournament for the first time since 2014, with a completely new group of players. Wales, too, is returning from a (much longer) absence at the tournament, led by star Gareth Bale.
Then there are the usuals: Iran and England. While Iran usually isn’t considered a top team, they have made the World Cup four of the last five times (missing out in 2010) and were inches away from making it out of the Group Stage in 2018. In that same tournament, England reached the semi-finals before losing to Croatia in extra time.
All of these teams are taking young squads to Qatar, meaning there’s potential to see some breakout players in Group B. Here is one U21 player from every team in Group A with a chance to impress:
(Note: You can find the U21 standouts in Group A here)
England: CM Jude Bellingham, 19
Somewhat surprisingly, England has only two U21 players on their entire World Cup roster. Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham is the player I think is the best, with Arsenal winger Bukayo Saka not far behind.
Bellingham started his career in England with Birmingham City, playing 44 games when he was 17. Dortmund signed him in 2020 for a record fee for a 17-year-old, resulting in Birmingham City retiring his number at the club. With Dortmund, Bellingham has reached new levels, lifting the DFB Pokal, playing over 100 games, scoring dozens of goals — with four in the Champions League so far this year — and becoming an England international.
While England has many options in midfield, it would be more than a surprise if Bellingham was on the bench in Qatar. Expect him to start in most, if not all, of England’s games.
United States: CAM Giovanni Reyna, 20
The United States roster was controversial for a number of reasons, particularly the decision to ignore one of the country’s most in-form strikers, Jordan Pefok. Still, it’s a very solid team, with multiple U21 players: Joe Scally, Yunus Musah, and, of course, Giovanni Reyna.
Reyna is, like Bellingham, a player for Borussia Dortmund. The difference is that while Bellingham arrived for a massive fee amid much fanfare, Reyna quietly arrived on the reserve team a year earlier on a free transfer from the New York City FC academy. The American has been impressive when he’s played for Dortmund, nearing 100 games with the club, but injuries have stunted his development so far.
When Reyna plays, he is very important. The US has never lost a game that he’s scored (four times, including a CONCACAF Nations League Final versus Mexico) and has lost just one of the eight games when he’s played more than an hour. He’ll likely start in Qatar, although probably on the wings instead of his usual spot on the center of the field.
Wales: ST Brennan Johnson, 21
While Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey may be the stars of the show for Wales, they have quite a few impressive young players. Liverpool academy product Neco Williams is a Premier League starter this season, while Rubin Colwill has been impressive in the Championship lately with Cardiff.
Still, it’s hard to look past Brennan Johnson. Johnson, who was born in England (Nottingham, to be precise), fired his hometown club to the Premier League for the first time in their history last season, with 18 goals and nine assists in the Championship. Johnson has struggled in the Premier League — only two goals this season — but undoubtedly has talent.
Wales constantly switch formations, so it’s tricky to read how they’ll line up in Qatar. I’d expect Johnson to start in a slightly deeper role behind either Kieffer Moore or Gareth Bale up top.
Iran: ST Aria Barzegar, 20
Iran has (as of writing) not yet released their World Cup squad, so this is a guess as to who might be on the team. Normally the easy pick would be Hull City’s Allahyar Sayyadmanesh, but the general consensus is that he’ll miss the tournament with an injury.
Barzegar started his career with the reserves of one of Iran’s biggest teams, Persepolis. It doesn’t appear that he’s played much at senior level, bouncing around from club to club, including an odd move to Belarus. This season he has returned to Iran with Naft MISFC but has yet to really get into a goalscoring rhythm.
However, with many of Iran’s strikers either struggling with form or injured, Barzegar was called up by Iran and debuted in November. He’ll likely make the squad as an emergency option, but Barzegar has the potential to be an impact player off the bench.
Note: Since this article was written, Iran’s squad was released and no U21 players, Barzegar included, made the team.
Stay tuned for the other groups! You can also find a review of multiple groups (including Group B) here.
Image courtesy of Vyacheslav Evdokimov, CC BY-SA 3.0 GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons.
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