A couple of things to remember before today’s Quarter Final.
England haven’t beaten either of their last two opponents in 90 minutes. Yes, the 1-0 defeat to Belgium nine days ago was basically a reserve game where losing wasn’t the worst outcome, but after having watched the Red Devils in action against Brazil yesterday it’s hard not to argue that even if that game had been between two full strength sides, England would have needed to have pulled all the stops out to beat our near neighbours.
Colombia didn’t have James Rodriguez available but England should have won that game in 90 minutes. If Colombia had played as well as they could have done – and I’ve got no idea why they didn’t apart from the last five minutes of the second half – then England would have been in trouble. The Cafeteros lost because they deserved to and I’m sure that had Bobby Moore still been with us he’d have felt pleased that the swines who framed him for stealing that necklace all those years ago were knocked out in a penalty shoot out that we finally won.
To some extent, we’re lucky to be playing Sweden this afternoon: they’ve never beaten us outside Sweden but two of the last three competitive meetings – including both games in the World Cup finals – have ended in draws. If we progress, then it’s possible we’ll either play the hosts or Croatia – and we’ve got a lot in common with the latter side – and I’ll cross that bridge if we come to it,
Don’t get me wrong, this is a refreshing change from the last few tournaments.
But I don’t think I’m alone when writing that I am worried about the level of expectation amongst casual fans (and especially how they’ll react if/when England are eliminated) but I’ve also had to field several ridiculous enquiries about a dating app for England fans and a couple of less than stellar attempts to emulate ‘World Cup Willy’, ‘Back Home’ and ‘Three Lions’.
If football does actually come home in just over seven days’ time, expect the camp followers and the baggage train to be very much in evidence.
As some of you already know, we lost all the content from March 2013 but in some respects that was a blessing in disguise – it means we don’t have anything to refer to from the disastrous outings in the last two tournaments.
A bit like the England team itself in that case.
There are only five players in this squad that went to Brazil four years ago and so this is practically a brand new side – the veteran is Ashley Young, who is five months older than Gary Cahill despite having won 24 fewer caps – and the only teenager in the side is Trent Alexander-Arnold. This looks like a squad for the future, but time will tell.
That being said, England are currently 16/1 to win the whole thing – about right considering it’s been 12 years since we got to the quarter finals and 28 since the semi finals – but that’s a bigger price than both our Group G rivals Belgium and arguably the least impressive Argentinian side since 2002.
With all due respect to both Panama and Tunisia, for once I agree with both the bookies and the pundits: the group is been us and Belgium, but as we face the Red Devils last it may come down to who can score the most goals against Panama. The Belgians get first crack at that next Monday (BBC1, 4:00pm) before we take on Tunisia (BBC1, 7:00pm) so at least we’ll have an idea of what we need to achieve in our second game (against Panama, Sunday 24th June, BBC1, 1:00pm).
Goals are where the potential issues are: only Harry Kane and Danny Welbeck have scored more than ten goals in their international careers and – unlike previous tournaments – they aren’t going to get much help in that respect from the midfield. In some respects Kane is comparable to Romelu Lukaku – he’s two months younger and they have similar strike rates in international games – but we don’t have anyone like Kevin DeBruyne or even Marouane Fellaini behind them.
The other problem with Belgium might be familiarity. Eleven of the Belgian squad play in the Premier League and four of them belong to Spurs – that’s only one fewer Tottenham player than in the England squad. But it’s also worth remembering that since their fourth place finish in Mexico ’86, Belgium haven’t got past the second round in a European based World Cup Finals tournament since 1990. Here’s a reminder of the last time they got that far:
Assuming we do get out of Group G – and a draw with Belgium should probably be enough – our next opponents will be one of the qualifiers from Group H. That section has been widely predicted as the most open of all the groups this summer and I’d agree with that: although Colombia reached the second round in Italia 90, it’s been 36 years since Poland qualified from the group stage in a ‘European’ World Cup and neither Japan nor Senegal have ever done that. We could be in trouble if it’s Poland: they’ve been rated higher in than us in the ever reliable (!) FIFA rankings since February 2017 and although they’ve not beaten us for 45 years, records like that are made to be broken.
After that it’s anyone’s guess. As for predictions, I’d say that another unsuccessful trip to the quarter finals is probably on the cards but as long as the team performs at a better level than 2014 – not an unrealistic expectation – then the fans can be happy. A little bit of luck and we might even lose narrowly to the Germans yet again.
From a wider perspective, in the same way as winning the Champions League and the Premier League seem to have become competitions that only elite teams can win, I’m not expecting a ‘new’ name on the World Cup this summer.
However, it’s worth pointing out that no country has won consecutive titles since Brazil in 1962 and with some serious questions about the morale of the Germany squad following an ill advised photo session that featured Mezut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan with the Turkish PM, the Germans might not retain their title.
Spain – who sacked their manager yesterday – have a dreadful record in European based tournaments and despite been written off, Argentina actually have a slightly better record than Brazil do when playing in European World Cups.
Like most of us, I’ll probably have a much better idea of who might win the whole thing in a couple of weeks time but the two teams I’ll be following are Brazil and France: the former because they have a point to prove after their disastrous semi final four years ago and the latter because – on paper at least – they have the talent to compete with the Latin Americans. The question with the French is whether Didier Deschamps can utilise that talent effectively.
Finally for now, here are a few games that could be worth following:
Potential Upset: Russia v Egypt (Tuesday June 19th, BBC 1, 7:00pm BBC1)
I know FIFA rankings can be a bit odd, but Egypt overtook Russia in June 2016 and even though it was against the Soviet Union, the Egyptians won their only previous meeting back in June 1991. I also think there’s the possibility of a surprise result in the game between Argentina and Iceland (Saturday, 7pm ITV) but that may be along the lines of Argentina not winning.
England’s possible next opponents: Poland v Colombia (Sunday June 24th, ITV, 7:00pm)
Four hours or so after England v Panama finishes so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Best game between two sides that may not qualify for The Round Of Sixteen:
Australia v Peru (Monday June 26th, ITV 3:00pm)
The assumption is that France and Denmark will qualify from Group B, but if anything upsets that plan then both of these teams might need to win to qualify for the next round: this pair are suspect defensively so there might be a few goals in a game that features two very colourful kits.
Most entertaining triple header: Wednesday 27th June
South Korea v Germany (BBC, 3:00pm, BBC)
Mexico v Sweden (BBC2, 3:00pm)
Brazil v Serbia (ITV, 7:00pm)
Brazil and Germany finish their group games on the same day. Although both of them should have qualified for the The Round of Sixteen, Serbia might need a point or three to join them. If South Korea v Germany starts getting out of hand, turn over to Mexico v Sweden on BBC2 because that’s probably going to be the game that settles the runners up in Group F.
Next scheduled post: a preview of England v Tunisia, which will be up at some point on Monday!