LONDON - England has been there, seen it, but not done it over the past two major international football tournaments, failing to progress from the group stage with embarrassing results against countries perceived as minnows.
At the 2014 World Cup finals England, already eliminated after defeats by Uruguay and Italy, headed home from Brazil after the dead-rubber, dead-boring 0-0 draw with Costa Rica. Euro 2016 saw Iceland defeat England 2-1 in a match that was as inexplicable as it was ignominious.
Raised hopes have soon plummeted — England has one win in its last eight matches at international tournaments.
On Monday, Tunisia awaits England in its opening 2018 World Cup match in Volgograd with understandable worries of a hat trick of failures. Surely not . . . not again . . . ?
There is still a temptation to write off relatively unknown opponents, but in the latest FIFA world rankings, England was joint 12th and Tunisia 21st, making it the highest rated African country. Unfamiliar faces, but underestimate them at your peril. Tunisia has won five, drawn four and lost one (a last-minute goal by Spain) over the past year.
The misplaced English over-confidence of the previous two decades has been replaced by a wait-and-see attitude post-Costa Rica and Iceland. It is the pattern of England qualifying with ease only to show a brittle backbone at major finals that Gareth Southgate must address plus, of course, if it reaches the knockout stages, the traditional failure in penalty shootouts, but first things first.
Assuming England, Tunisia and Belgium will all beat Panama, two from the three will qualify from Group G. Anything but victory over Tunisia will need England to beat world No. 3 Belgium in the final game to qualify, so Monday’s clash is almost winner takes all. In many respects it could hardly be bigger.
England must lay the demons of Iceland to rest in Volgograd and there is a quiet confidence, but certainly not overconfidence, in Southgate’s squad. The team spirit is probably the best of recent major finals, no cliques, no real superstars, no inflated egos. England is as ready as it can be to prove it can succeed under pressure.
If England’s football is as good as Southgate’s public relations, the ghosts of tournaments past will be wiped away. Southgate has said all the right things, his charm offensive anything but offensive.
He said: “We hope we can send people to work the following day having enjoyed our matches. We know we are not the finished article, in fact we are a long way from that. But I think people see signs of progress and enjoy watching us now and the manner in which we try to play. We are seeing a team that is enjoying each other’s company, getting on well and is very proud to represent the nation. They have some talent, they have a real desire and determination to play for England. We ask people to pay a lot of money to watch football. In the end we want to entertain where we possibly can.”
As a former defender perhaps it is not surprising Southgate has placed the emphasis on a solid backline. An inexperienced goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford, will probably have Kyle Walker, Gary Cahill and John Stones in front of him with Kieron Trippier and Danny Rose the wing-backs.
Southgate will most likely select both holding midfielders against Tunisia, Jordan Henderson and Erik Dier, with Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard providing the bullets for captain Harry Kane who is not just a lone striker, but is becoming almost England’s lone goal scorer.
England has scored 27 goals in 18 games under Southgate. All but one of its last eight matches have seen fewer than three goals. Kane has scored 13 goals in 24 appearances for England, eight in his last seven internationals. Stop Kane from scoring and you can also stop England winning, but he rarely disappoints though after a goalless Euro 2016 the Spurs striker knows this is the stage on which he will be judged. Greatness is on hold, but Kane will be aware that six goals usually guarantees you the Golden Boot in the modern era.
Tunisia is unlikely to be as accommodating as Saudi Arabia was in its 5-0 defeat by Russia in the opening match of the tournament. Coach Ali Maâloul, in his second stint in charge, has lifted Tunisia 83 places up the world rankings from 104th two years ago, a remarkable achievement for a country whose domestic league is riddled with crowd violence.
There is plenty of quality in the Tunisia squad, but it could be the influence of father figure Maâloul that pushes the current crop to unexpected heights in Russia. As Tunisia has failed to win in its 11 games since its first-ever World Cup finals match, a 3-1 win over Mexico in 1978, a victory in any game would be something of an achievement. Three winless tournaments have come and gone since, but Maâloul has inspired a belief in his squad that things will be different this time for the Eagles of Carthage.
“We have tough teams to compete against in the group stages. We’ll be ready. We have good players and we’re preparing very hard to increase our chance of advancing (beyond the group stages),” said Maâloul. “The English national football team has very decorated players, including the likes of Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane.
“The Belgian team will also be tough to get through, because they have a more offensive style of play than the English team, and they focus on individual skills as well. Our purpose is to make sure we put on an honorable performance that will make Tunisians and all Arabs proud, that’s our goal. To do that, we need to change the mentality of the players and equip them with a professional attitude to prepare them emotionally for the competition.”
With Kane, Sterling, Lingard and Alli, England has enough potential firepower to reach the knockout stages,but we have heard this before and the attacking quartet must reproduce impressive club form at football’s top table, which too many of their predecessors have failed to do.