England have qualified for the World Cup – but does anyone care?
England have qualified for the World Cup in Russia this summer, and their tally in Group F of 26 points has only been bettered by two other European teams – Switzerland and Germany. Gareth Southgate’s charges also only conceded three goals on the road to the final tournament, which is joint-best alongside Spain. Even though England have had such a terrific qualifying campaign, nobody seems to be too excited.
Three Lions supporters have a tendency to be overly optimistic in major tournaments, and these expectations weigh heavy on the players. Could the fact that people now expect England to fail spur them on to victory?
England Should Have Destroyed their Group
Perhaps the primary reason why supporters are lacking in enthusiasm with regards to England’s chances is the fact that despite there being no real stern tests in the qualifying group, some of the victories seemed a lot harder fought than they should have been. The recent 1-0 wins over Slovenia and Lithuania have been met with harsh criticism, with the BBC describing England’s performances as having no inspiration and nothing to strike fear into the opposition.
England’s biggest victory of the campaign was against Malta, when they won 4-0 at the Ta’Qali National Stadium in September this year with goals from Harry Kane, Ryan Bertrand, and Danny Welbeck. In the previous leg at Wembley, Southgate’s men put a paltry two goals past the team who have only managed two competitive wins in their history. To only notch six goals in total against the side who are placed at 191 in the FIFA rankings, behind countries like Cambodia and Papua New Guinea, is simply not good enough for a team who believe they have a chance of making it to the latter stages of the summer tournament.
England’s most recent opponents, Lithuania, are in 120th place in the FIFA rankings, but it required a first-half penalty for the 12th ranked team to edge their competition who sit in second-to-last place in the qualifying group.
The lack of bite in Southgate’s side is evident, as they have only managed to score 18 goals up to this point. Other table-toppers have been much more convincing on their respective journeys to Russia. Reigning champions Germany, for instance, have bagged a whopping 43 goals during their 100% record of wins in Group C, and it is no surprise that Oddschecker finds that Joachim Low’s side are a best price of 5/1 to win the World Cup again in the summer. Spain have also been highly prolific in qualifying, and had racked up 35 goals after nine games. A number of teams placed second and third in their groups have also outdone England’s goal tally. These include Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, and Italy.
England’s humiliating exit from Euro 2016 still lives on in the memory of every supporter. Even though there are too many underwhelming showings to mention in the last twenty years, the dismal display during Roy Hodgson’s tenure is up there with the worst of them all. Seeing England players sitting on the ground dejected after a harrowing loss and early exit from a tournament while another team rushes around in ecstatic celebrations is the norm these days, but the Iceland defeat really hurt. This was supposed to be the start of a new era in English football.
After the 2-1 defeat at the Euros in which England were totally outclassed by an Iceland team in their first ever major tournament, expectations are now at an all-time low. This means that England have the opportunity to be the underdogs and exceed these beliefs. In the past they always had high hopes rested on their shoulders, which led to a level of pressure that the players just couldn’t seem to handle. Even veterans like Wayne Rooney, England’s all-time leading goal scorer, have failed to turn up in the competitions that matter.
England now need to use this opportunity to rise from the ashes of Euro 2016 and restore some belief in the national side. With people now prepared for the worst, the pressure is off for the Three Lions for once.
While England have most certainly failed to live up to the ticket prices some fans have had to fork out for, other sides have fully entertained their audiences on the road to Russia.
One of the most exciting teams going into the tournament is Belgium, who, after years of looking like a promising set of players, may finally be clicking in high enough gears to make their mark on the summer tournament. The Premier League is the most fiercely competitive division in the world, and the two best midfielders in it are Belgian. Eden Hazard of Chelsea and Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City are such a deadly force behind the striker and have the ability to cut opposition defences to ribbons. They will most certainly be feeding Romelu Lukaku in Russia, a player who is one of the leading contenders for the Golden Boot this term after having improved his output year upon year during his career.
In addition to these devastating forwards, Belgium have some of the strongest defenders from England’s top flight in Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, along with Thibaut Courtois in goal. Roberto Martinez’s charges are the second highest scorers among the European teams with 39 goals after nine games, and have only conceded six goals in the process. Currently at 14/1 to lift the trophy, the Euro 2016 quarterfinalists could be dark horses in the upcoming competition.
Another team who are looking like serious contenders for the ultimate prize are France. There are a high number of young players coming up through their ranks now who are looking to build on the nation’s close-but-no-cigar Euro 2016 campaign. Some of the exciting youngsters who are likely to line up alongside the established world class talent of Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann include Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar, and Benjamin Mendy. These fearsome attack-minded players helped Monaco storm to the Ligue 1 title last season and became household names in the process. After growing accustomed to the limelight and with Mbappe and Mendy having made big-money moves in the summer, these young stars look set to shine in Russia.
Reasons to be Cheerful
Even though things are currently looking pretty grim for England, there are a few factors that suggest they can bounce back and impress in Russia. For one, Kane is quickly becoming one of the most prolific strikers in world football, and in his short footballing career at Tottenham Hotspur he has improved massively. He has shown that he can score from just about anywhere given half a chance, and if he can bring this to the world stage where so many other English strikers have failed, he could go down in the history books. His Spurs partner Dele Alli is another reason to be cheerful, and his creativity and style is something that the national team has lacked for many years.
Southgate has shown that he is not afraid to leave big names out of his side if they are going through a bad patch. Many past England managers have shoehorned star players into their starting line-ups even when they hadn’t been working well for their clubs. All the potential England stars now have a full season ahead of them to work harder than ever and prove to the manager that they are worthy of being on that plane to Russia. With them all knowing that their places in the squad are by no means secure, it should lead them to up their games.
When the World cup comes around in summer all those England fans who said they’d never watch them again will still turn up. But this time, the expectations will be a lot lower. This will hopefully benefit the team, who may perform slightly better with the pressure reduced.