For once, with England, there appears to be a consensus. The quarter-finals would be a respectable finish and that should be the target for Gareth Southgate’s team.
After an impressive qualifying campaign, with encouraging performances in friendlies, perhaps it’s expected that being one of the final eight is about par for England.
But perhaps the expectation is based a little more on studying the wallchart and England’s route to the final.
There can be no excuses if England fails to get out of the group, and a matchup with the open and unpredictable Group H in the Round of 16 means, whether as group winners or runners-up, they can have ambitions of winning a first tournament knockout game in twelve years.
From there, England can expect the toughest opposition from the quarter-finals onwards.
Here’s how it breaks down:
Unlike last time, where England finished bottom of the group, England have been dealt a more favourable draw:
|ENGLAND vs Tunisia||Monday 18th June||19:00||Volgograd Arena||Volgograd|
|ENGLAND vs Panama||Sunday 24th June||13:00||Nizhny Novgorod Stadium||Nizhny Novgorod|
|Belgium vs ENGLAND||Thursday 28th June||19:00||Kaliningrad Stadium||Kaliningrad Stadium|
Tunisia will look to pack the defence and frustrate England and will be satisfied with a point from the opener.
Converted striker Wahbi Khazri will lead the line but shouldn’t cause England any defensive headaches. This threatens to be a repeat of the diabolical matches against Costa Rica and Algeria in England’s last two World Cups, but if England really have turned a new leaf they should get the job done.
Panama are a physical and combative team, but are extremely limited. This encounter is reminiscent of England’s bruising pre-World Cup friendly against Honduras in 2014. There can be no excuses, though, if they fail to pick up three points.
Gareth Southgate will be hoping that his team going into the final group stage match against Belgium having already qualified for the knockouts, with it simply determining their place as group winners or runners-up.
With Premier League standout performers Jan Vertonghen, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, there’s no question that Belgium have the superior players but there are questions about Roberto Martinez’ ability to get the best out of them.
No matter what happens against Belgium, England should be qualifying from this group.
Route #1: Group Winners
If England can get the better of Belgium, it would be that rarest of things: a good tournament win, and give them confidence and momentum going into the knockouts.
Being paired with Group H makes it difficult to predict the potential opponents. With teams from four different continents, it’s a match-up that demonstrates the wonderful variety of the World Cup. Colombia, Poland, Japan, and Senegal.
With a great coach in José Pékerman and tournament experience, Colombia should be favourites to top the group. Which would leave Poland most likely to finish second.
Here’s England’s likeliest route should they top the group:
Round of 16
Poland were a resolute unit at Euro 2016 and didn’t lose a game in 90 minutes. Robert Lewandowski was the top-scorer in qualifying, and if he carries on scoring in Russia, they’ll be tough opponents. But this is a perfect litmus test for England’s progression – well capable of winning, can they do it in knockouts circumstances?
From there, they’d have an extremely tough route to glory, having to face three of the four tournament favourites. Brazil, surely as winners of Group E, would be waiting in the quarters before France and Germany.
Route #2: Runners-Up
Assuming Colombia top the group, this would be England’s route to the final:
Round of 16
Colombia, as one of the most impressive and memorable teams from Brazil 2014, wouldn’t be easy. Containing James Rodriguez is a task that’s evaded better teams than England, and with Radamel Falcao fit this time, they have extra firepower.
With Barcelona’s giant Yerry Mina at the back, they’re solid defensively but Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina between the sticks, there’s always the chance of a howler undermining them.
Like Poland, it’s a winnable game but a tough ask: should England do it, it would represent a genuine step forward.
Defeat to old rivals Germany in the quarter-final appears to be the most grimly predictable end to England’s campaign. Even if they upset the odds and knock the holders out, Spain and Brazil would be waiting for them. And if not them, Messi’s Argentina or potentially France.
So what’s the difference?
Had Landon Donovan not scored a last-minute winner against Algeria in 2010, England would have topped the group and their route to the final would have been the comparatively easier: Ghana, Uruguay, Netherlands. Instead, they faced Germany in the Round of 16 and were comprehensively beaten.
This is a totally different situation. Whether England top the group is almost irrelevant, they will have to face the best teams if they hope to somehow win it.
But in theory, Poland would be a little easier than Colombia in the last 16, and France don’t look as balanced as intuitive as Spain, so there are marginal positives to topping the group.
In reality, though, the biggest plus from topping the group would be that achievement in itself and the belief and momentum that comes with it, as opposed to making a real difference in terms of favourable fixtures.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group D in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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