England Football

Yeah, we know. We seem to go through the same process every time the England national football team has a big tournament looming: we see the stellar talents at the manager’s disposal, reflect on what has often been a relatively stress-free qualifying campaign (remember Roy Hodgson’s 100% record ahead of Euro 2016?) and do our finest rendition of “Three Lions” as the team’s first match of the competition kicks off.

Then comes the inevitable: a key player gets injured, there’s a baffling tactical or referee decision, a crucial penalty is missed or we just get defeated by a supposed no-hoper team (Iceland, anyone?).

So, why could things be genuinely different for the now Gareth Southgate-managed England when our boys in white begin their World Cup campaign proper against Tunisia at Russia’s Volgograd Arena on 18th June?

Expectations aren’t at their highest…

…and that could work in England’s favour. Past World Cups, after all, saw England teams pretty much pick themselves. The opposition knew they’d be facing off against Beckham, Lampard, Owen, Robson, Shilton or whoever the Three Lions’ biggest stars were at the time.

In 2018, though, we’re a relatively unknown quantity to many of our international rivals. The 2000s ‘Golden Generation’ is long gone, with our defenders especially low in profile. The likes of Joe Gomez, Harry Maguire, James Tarkowski and Nick Pope are hardly the household names that Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell and John Terry were.

We do have some rather more established talents in the midfield, such as Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson – but again, it’s tricky for anyone to predict exactly who Southgate will select for any one match.

Just look at the former Middlesbrough manager’s options up front, for instance – Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford are all competing to be in the first XI, giving England a happy unpredictability that it lacked in Sven-Goran Eriksson’s or Fabio Capello’s time.

There are more factors than just those, though

Everywhere you look, there are further reasons for optimism that might just tempt you to back England for outright glory at its current not-exactly-hot-favourite odds (16/1 at Paddy Power as IN&AROUND headed to press, compared to the 9/2 quoted for both Brazil and Germany).

Southgate’s troops do, after all, have a seemingly easy group, consisting of Panama, Tunisia and Belgium. Sure, the latter could be testing opponents with such aces as Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, but they are also England’s last match in Group G, so we may well have secured our passage to the next round by then.

The first knockout round fixture could also be a good one for England. Group H – from which England’s opponents at this stage would be drawn – comprises Colombia, Poland, Senegal and Japan, which are all seemingly beatable sides for a squad as capable as England’s.

Oh, and did you know that whenever Pep Guardiola wins a league title in a World Cup year, the country in which he manages always goes on to win the tournament (Spain in 2010 and Germany in 2014)? He emerged victorious as Manchester City’s coach this past league season.

Fair enough, we probably won’t see Henderson or Kane hoisting the FIFA World Cup Trophy in the air on Russian turf at the 15th July Final – but those 52 years of hurt never stopped us dreaming…

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