Ten-man Wales suffered World Cup heartbreak as two goals deep in second-half stoppage time sealed a 2-0 victory for Iran to leave their knockout hopes hanging by a thread.
Roozbeh Cheshmi’s stunning goal in the eighth minute of added time broke Wales’ resistance after goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey had been shown a straight red card for racing off his line and fouling Mehdi Taremi in the 84th minute.
Iran then added their second with practically the last kick of the game when Ramin Rezaeian finished off another rapid counter-attack with a cool finish over substitute goalkeeper Danny Ward.
Wales were seeking a victory in order to boost their hopes of reaching the knockout stages having come from behind to draw 1-1 with USA in their opening game, but they struggled to break Iran down, with Gareth Bale, becoming their most-capped player on his 110th appearance, unable to inspire any more heroics.
The result means Rob Page’s side will need to beat England in their final Group B game to have any hope of reaching the last 16, while Iran, much-improved from their 6-2 loss to Gareth Southgate’s side, have renewed hope of achieving the feat for the first time.
How Iran broke Welsh hearts
Much of the focus was on off-field matters ahead of kick-off, with fans encountering more ticketing problems as they attempted to enter the stadium and Iran’s national anthem met with loud jeers inside the ground.
Carlos Queiroz’s players had refused to sing the anthem ahead of their game against England as an act of solidarity with those protesting for women’s rights in the country, but on this occasion they did, even as those in the stands voiced their anger.
When the action got under way, it quickly became clear that Iran would be a far trickier opponent for Wales than they were for England, with the inclusion of star striker Sardar Azmoun, fully fit again following an injury, one of six changes to the team .
It was Wales, though, who created the first chance when Kieffer Moore, starting in place of Dan James after his game-changing appearance from the bench against USA, poked a close-range shot straight at Hossein Hosseini from Conner Roberts’ cross.
Within minutes, Iran had the ball in the net at the other end, Ali Gholizadeh slotting home from Azmoun’s pass, only for VAR to intervene and correctly rule the goal out for offside.
That chance came from Welsh sloppiness in possession and it proved a theme of their performance, Page’s side lacking the guile and composure to really trouble their stubborn opponents.
A tense game exploded into life soon after the break, with Azmoun slamming a shot against the post having got in behind the Welsh defence, then heading too close to Hennessey after Gholizadeh’s follow-up effort from distance had come back off the other upright.
Page attempted to give Wales fresh impetus with a raft of substitutions, including the introduction of the fit-again Joe Allen, but Iran continued to look more likely, with Saeid Ezatolahi forcing a sprawling save from Hennessey with a long-range effort.
Ben Davies went close with one of few Wales chances soon after that, his powerful effort from Moore’s lay-off tipped over by Hosseini, but Hennessey’s red card came just seconds later.
The 35-year-old was initially only shown a yellow card, but the booking was rightly upgraded to a red following a VAR check, the man advantage allowing Iran to ramp up the pressure in the closing stages.
It looked like Wales would hold out for a point, but substitute Cheshmi’s sensational strike, fired into the bottom corner from 25 yards out, broke their hearts before Rezaeian’s second rubbed salt into their wounds.
Their hopes of reaching the last 16 are not over, but a final group game against England, a fixture they must now win, looks a daunting challenge for a side left in fourth place in Group B.
Bale: We’re gutted but we must recover
Wales captain Gareth Bale said on BBC: “It’s gutting, we’re gutted. There’s no other way to say it.
“We fought until the last second but it’s one of those things, it’s difficult to take, but we have to recover and go again.
“We have to pick ourselves up straight away. It’s going to be difficult, but we have one game left in the group and have to look at every positive and still try to enjoy the occasion.
On Wayne Hennessey’s red card, he added: “I haven’t seen it so I don’t know (if it was a red) but the red card changes the game completely. Obviously, we let the first one in and the second goal doesn’t matter.
“We recover and he have to go again.”
Analysis: Welsh reliance on Bale exposed
This was a historic game for Gareth Bale, his 110th international appearance seeing him overtake Chris Gunter as Wales’ most-capped player, but it is not one he will remember fondly.
Bale had yet again delivered when his country needed him most against USA, winning and converting the penalty which clinched their 1-1 draw at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium.
But there was to be no repeat of those heroics against Iran, with Bale unable to exert his usual influence, the 33-year-old limited to 36 touches, the fewest of any player to complete the game.
In the end, the performance and result exposed Wales’ reliance on their talisman. Kieffer Moore was a useful outlet at times, but when Bale does not spark, neither do his team-mates.
That is not to say he should be blamed, of course. In fact, other senior players were similarly poor, with Aaron Ramsey clearly lacking fitness in central midfield and goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey punished for the lapse that led to his red card.
But inevitably the spotlight ends up on Bale. Wales will need more from him if they are to beat England and upset the odds to claim a place in the knockout stages, but in the long-term they must find other solutions, and a new generation capable of building on the progress he has driven .
What does the result mean?
The defeat leaves wales bottom of Group B with one point from two games, meaning they must beat England in their final game on Tuesday at 7pm to have any hope of progressing to the last 16.
Iran move to three points, putting them in a strong position to reach the knockout stages ahead of their final group game against USA, also at 7pm on Tuesday.
Player of the match – Ramin Rezaeian
The right-back was an unused substitute in Iran’s 6-2 thrashing by England but he is sure to keep his place in the team now.
Rezaeian was an energetic presence throughout, helping to keep Gareth Bale quiet and taking his chance brilliantly for Iran’s second goal.
Wales’ winless streak – Opta stats
- Wales (D2 L5) have now gone seven games without a victory in all competitions for the first time since May 2003.
- Iran have scored four goals already at the 2022 World Cup, twice as many goals as they managed in any previous edition of the competition.
- Wales conceded more than one goal in a World Cup match for the first time ever.
- Wales’ Wayne Hennessey was just the third goalkeeper to be sent off at the World Cup, after Gianluca Pagliuca for Italy against Norway in 1994 and Itumeleng Khune for South Africa against Uruguay in 2010.
- Roozbeh Cheshmi’s opener for Iran, on 97 minutes 56 seconds, was the latest winning goal ever scored at the World Cup, excluding extra-time, since exact goal times are available for the competition (since 1966).
- Gareth Bale made his 110th senior appearance for Wales, becoming the outright most capped player for his country, surpassing Chris Gunter (109).