Luck of the draw: Why England may be set up to surprise

One of the truisms of professional sport is that you don’t choose your time to succeed. Sometimes, your time chooses you.

Harry Kane

Source: AAP

And as much as the English Football Association are taking a long-term view of the English national team, with a clear focus on future European Championships and FIFA World Cups, life comes at you fast. As in right now.

This World Cup has thrown up so many upset results and unexpected outcomes that pre-tournament predictions are already way off course. Almost nothing is going to plan.

Honestly, when was the last time that Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Spain and Portugal all failed to win their opening World Cup match? And then think about all the big teams that aren’t even here – Italy, Chile, The Netherlands and USA.

Who is shining? Russia, obviously. But Croatia is looking wonderful. France are two-from-two without being incredible. There’s a lot to like about Belgium, who may be maturing into a contender.

But if you’re an England player, coach or fan, you wouldn’t automatically feel intimidated by them (France aside) like you would about those “legacy” nations. This is a World Cup of tremendous quality – but it’s also shown how widespread quality is around the world.

Of course, we all expect those big guns to get more traction as the tournament progresses but their uninspiring starts mean Russia 2018 is about the most open event we’ve seen for a long time.

Which brings us back to England. Seldom has a nation been so bad at seizing the moment, but who knows when an opportunity like this will come again. The draw could not have been kinder to the Three Lions.

England should overcome Panama in Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday night without too many dramas. Even a draw will effectively secure their place in the second round – where they will most likely play Japan or Senegal.

But before that, England will get a strong tune-up against Belgium in their final group stage match, a contest that is effectively meaningless (assuming England defeats Panama) given there’s no real advantage to finishing on top of the group.

Let’s say that England – we’re taking some liberties here – defeats either Japan or Senegal in the Round of 16, they’d then be in the last eight. Given the unusual results that have been dotted across the World Cup so far, England may not be facing a superpower in peak form at the quarter-final stage

That could lead to a semi-final, which would match the much-idolised deeds of Italia 1990, another tournament with a charmed run of fixtures for England. Regardless, the public support would be off the charts and the team belief would have grown to such a point that this team really would feel it could do anything.

On paper, England are anything but a World Cup semi-finalist – more a mid-range battler – and their opening performance against Tunisia reflected a fatal inconsistency.

In the first 20 minutes, they mixed a bold style of play that Gareth Southgate has been promising: fast, aggressive determined to take on all comers, abetted by an unapologetic swagger. It was scintillating.

The next 70 minutes? Well, that oscillated between poor and satisfactory. And only Harry Kane’s late goal spared the blushes. Belgium’s 5-2 demolition of Tunisia on Saturday hardly franked the result, either.

But Belgium are a much more mature team, with many survivors from their 2014 expedition to Brazil. England have largely rebuilt since then. One gets the feeling they’ll get better the more this tournament goes on, which marks a total contrast from four years ago.

And given the way this tournament is both structured and unfolding, it’s a red carpet ride for Southgate. No matter how good England aspire to become in future years, a dreamy fixture list is the one thing they can’t plan for.

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4 min read
Published 24 June 2018 at 3:56am
By Sebastian Hassett