With the biggest tournament in world football now just months away, the usual hype around England’s chances will inevitably begin. An unbeaten qualifying campaign will form the basis of any confidence and the favourable draw will certainly help fan the flames. Can England, perennial under-achievers, spring a surprise and compete in a tournament nobody expects them to succeed in?
After Euro 2016 and indeed the last World Cup, the hopes of fans in England will be lower than ever before. Failure to get out of the group in 2014 was disappointing, losing out in an incredibly tough group wasn’t the worst thing, but seeing Costa Rica advance instead of the Three Lions was.
Euro 2014 was an unmitigated disaster as minnows Iceland derailed Roy Hodgson’s side in the last 16 after a dull and uninspiring group stage. The nation’s love affair with the national side was all-but over and even the impending World Cup has done little to lift the despondent fans, already resigned to another summer of failure.
“Arena de Sao Paulo” by PNG basado en esta imagen (CC BY 2.0)
Thanks to a favourable draw, England find themselves in a surprisingly easy group, too, which is the perfect tonic after facing both Italy and Uruguay four years ago. This time around, aside from Belgium, they’re facing minnows who should pose little problem. Tunisia last qualified in 2006 and have never passed the group stages and Panama are completely new to the competition. Underestimate at your peril, but with good preparation, those sides should be negotiated with ease.
Of course, Belgium are likely to win the group. They’re ranked as favourites in soccer betting tips by OLBG, but England come in as a close second. Once a team is out of the group stages, anything can happen. If the last 16 is possible, how far can England go? Waiting in the round of 16 is either the winner or runner-up from Group H, likely to be one of Colombia or Poland. It’s another generous helping hand from a rather kind draw, one that sees little benefit in winning the group. The seeds are Colombia but in truth, none of the sides lined up as last sixteen opposition are seen as the big guns.
Two of the big guns will not be waiting for the Three Lions though, Netherlands and Italy both failed to qualify. This does give the tournament a weaker look than most seasons, but many of the newer international states are now improving.
“Netherlands eliminated in 2014” – By Jeffrey.Brilman (CC BY-SA 3.0)
From there the path blurs somewhat as predictions become filled with ‘if’s and ‘but’s, however, if Germany were to win their group and their last-16 tie, they would await whoever finished second in England’s group. Likewise, if Brazil were to win their group and last-16 game, they await the group winners.
At some point, one of the world’s elite will need dispatching if you’re going to win the tournament and it is at that point we get to see England’s credentials as a serious international side once again. The nation would be satisfied with a quarter-final exit at worst, something to once again give us a little bit of national pride after the humiliation of the last four years.
One significant difference between 2018 and previous seasons is the weight of expectation. Nobody truly believes this England side is capable of going very far: a mixture of ageing players who weren’t good enough in their early 20s and young, untested players not playing regular club football gives the side an unfamiliar feel. Coupled with Gareth Southgate, an uninspiring man whose greatest achievement in an England shirt was missing a penalty, they’re not a squad to get pulses racing.
Usually, the Three Lions go into a tournament under the premise that ‘England expects’. In 2018, England can only hope. Maybe that lack of expectation might just allow the side to play freely and surprise a few people.