Iran strike late to leave Wales on the brink after Wayne Hennessey receives World Cup’s first red card

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“Don’t take me home” became an anthem of Wales in 2016 but the danger is they will soon be booking their flights. The latest of late drama felt a fatal blow to their hopes of extending their stay in Qatar, goals in the 98th and 101st minutes earning Iran the victory they thoroughly deserved but which thanks to a combination of the uprights, the most marginal of offsides and some inspired goalkeeping, they seemed set to be denied.

Yet Wayne Hennessey’s day will not be remembered for his stops from Sardar Azmoun and Saeid Ezatolahi, crucial as they seemed at the time.

If Wales have had World Cup history on their minds, it was invariably 1958, not 1982 or 2010. Then Hennessey offered echoes of Toni Schumacher in the semi-final 40 years ago and Nigel de Jong in the final in South Africa to earn the sending off they somehow escaped – albeit when, ludicrously, the referee initially only booked him before being sent to the monitor - and the first red card of the 2022 tournament with the highest and latest challenge seen yet in Qatar.

If there is a sadness for the centurion, who waited 15 years from his debut to play in a World Cup and probably never will again, his departure cost Wales. They had hung on with 11 men. With 10, the hastily-introduced Danny Ward was beaten twice, first when Rouzbeh Chesmi’s crisp strike flew past him, then when Mehdi Taremi, the man clattered by Hennessey when 40 yards off his line, exacted the right sort of retribution, finding Ramin Rezaeian to dink in the second.

Iran’s celebrations were euphoric and understandably so.

The thrashing by England was their worst ever result in a World Cup. Now they have still more of an incentive to beat the United States when, following a dreadful start to their tournament, they could qualify.

Wales, meanwhile, will have to conjure victory against England on Tuesday and very little in a tournament when they have underperformed suggests they will get it.

Perhaps they can take heed from Iran’s transformation in the space of a few days. Against England, they achieved the remarkable feat of playing for a 0-0 draw and yet losing 6-2.

Manager Carlos Queiroz made five changes, gave them a more attacking reboot and they earned a clean sheet with few alarms, as well as adding incision from Azmoun. He added another dimension, the sort of irrepressible direct runner who can both exhaust and evade defenders.

But Wales scarcely threatened, their chances coming early and late. Kieffer Moore, a catalyst as a substitute against the United States, could have been a scorer as a starter, stretching to meet Connor Roberts’ inviting cross on the volley, but directing it at Hossein Hosseini. Some 70 minutes later, Ben Davies’ rising drive was tipped over by the goalkeeper.

Otherwise a man who retrieved the ball from his net six times against England was often a spectator, while Gareth Bale’s afternoon was notable largely for passing Chris Gunter to become Wales’ most capped player. Aaron Ramsey was out of sorts, out of form and off the pitch when sacrificed following Hennessey’s exit.

Iran always had more pace, more cohesion and more menace. They had a seemingly sumptuous goal disallowed, with a deft exchange of passes between Azmoun and the scorer Ali Gholizadeh marred when the latter strayed just offside.

Wales also had a triple reprieve in a manic 20 seconds when Azmoun accelerated away to drill a shot against the near post, Gholizadeh curled a 20-yard effort against the other upright and, stooping to head the rebound, Azmoun picked out Hennessey. Time and again, Wales also relied on the excellent Joe Rodon to rescue them.

But Iran played like men with a cause. Their players were under political pressure to sing the national anthem and most duly went through the motions. The protest of remaining silent against England, as part of the protests against the regime, felt more eloquent. This time the most notable dissent came from the stands, amid jeers and boos, with the sight of a couple crying telling a tale in itself.

By the end, the Iranian support were overjoyed. In this most political of World Cups, it was a reminder a country is much more than just its government, no matter how oppressive.