Tunisia and Panama devote Gareth Southgates humen a winnable start in the World Cup before they face Belgiums galaxy of Premier League stars
Welcome, is again, to the world. The balls have been cracked, the teams grouped off, the dates and venues parcelled out. After a glossy, agreeably fast-paced draw rite on the lighted stage of the Kremlin, Russia 2018 is run, the 21 st Fifa World Cup officially a lockdown.
The draw itself was a grand affair, with luminaries from Diego Maradona to Gordon Banks ranged behind their glitter punch bowls. From the opening moments there was a familiar hurry-up of intrigue as Group B threw up Portugal against Spain in Sochi, an authentically mouthwatering World Cup prospect.
As for England, well, the balls were kind. Maradona refused to produce an easy headline, pulling out Croatia when it might have been England to face Argentina in Group D. Diego also spared England a group-stage meeting with Germany, putting Mexico in with the holders.
Finally England were placed in Group G, with Belgium an intriguing opponent given the powerful Belgian presence in the Premier League , not to mention the recent transformation in footballing power between the two nations. Bring us your golden generation. And yes. We have been here before.
As Panama and Tunisia joined England in Group G, the Fifa host Gary Lineker didn’t miss the chance to make a droll statement about Diego” always being good with his hands”, which stimulated sense if you have England v Argentina 1986 on memory speed-dial, but might have voiced a little odd elsewhere.
But Lineker was right. The balls were operating hot for Gareth Southgate. And England will expect to beat Tunisia and Panama, their first two opponents. Not that this has been much of a convenience in the past, as Iceland, Costa Rica and the USA will witness. But Southgate could not have hoped for much more , not least as the final fixture will be the Belgium game, a moment of kindness from the hands of Carles Puyol that might leave both teams already qualified or in the position- whispering it- to attempt a slight moment of 1982 -style Anschluss .
First England will fulfill Tunisia in Volgograd, previously Stalingrad, and a place not usually associated with the tourist road unless you happen to be a military historian. These days Volgograd is an industrial city, still shadowed in its artefacts and monuments by its bloody 20 th-century history. England will travel 900 miles to get there from their St Petersburg base. It should at the very least be pleasantly warm.
This is a match England will have good hopes of winning. Tunisia are ranked 27 th in the world, 12 spots below England. They do not have any obvious starring players- although Wahbi Khazri might have a point to prove- and have lost to Senegal, Burkina Faso and Cameroon this year and drawn at home to Libya. The veteran Nabil Maaloul was reappointed as manager in April. It could be tight, never a good thing with England, who tend to respond to tournament pressure with all the resilience of a succumbing sea anemone left to cook in the summer sun.
From there England travel 560 miles to Nizhny, home city of Maxim Gorky. Here, in a few moments of classic World Cup culture weirdness, they will play Panama, a nation of 4. 4 million people, with an economy built around canal tolls and international tax evasion.
These are grizzled World Cup first-timers, with five players on more than a hundred caps and two in the squad with 43 international aims. Panama will have nothing to lose and a shrewd coach in Hernan Dario” the Baton” Gomez, veteran of three World Cups. The anxiety is England could find themselves with another Costa Rica on their hands, a well-drilled emerging power with seven months to prepare the defensive masterplan. In reality they really should win this one. And so on to Belgium in Kaliningrad, another round trip of more than 1,000 miles. This is the jewel of England’s group, a game against a team who should on paper- and were they not called Belgium- is just one of the favourites to win the tournament. It is also a session of the most familial of footballing enemies.
The Premier League has been good to Belgium, just as it was good to Iceland in the buildup to their breakthrough tournament, proving the perfect road into elite-tier club football for products of a hugely successful development structure. As it stands Belgium have 21 recent call-ups who have played or currently play in England. In Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku they have three of the best attacking players in the league. Indeed, in every department except perhaps full-back Belgium have a stronger Premier League XI than England. It promises to be a fascinating occasion, by the end of which both teams will have travelled 4,000 miles of the working group stage.
There is, of course, an entire world of footballing intrigue beyond Group G. Russia versus Saudi Arabia is a wild-looking World Cup opener, albeit for reasons that have almost nothing to do with football. These two nations are in effect at war in Syria right now, or war at one remove. Both will also play Egypt, currently striking a enter into negotiations with Russia to house planes bombing Saudi forces-out on the ground. Uruguay, the fourth team of the working group, might be best just looking the other way and biding out of all this.
Brazil have a fairly easy run in Group E, but could then face Germany in the second round if one or the other contrives not to win their group. The Group of Death- more a group of mild peril- is Group D. Argentina, Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria is a powerful lineup, with farther tournament joy for Iceland in getting to face Lionel Messi.
As for England, hopes will remain energetically stifled. Past group evidence suggests England tend to raise their game against superior foes and may benefit from that 28 June date against a genuinely classy Belgium team. On the other hand Italy and Uruguay knocked England out of the last World Cup in the space of six days.
There is no real tendency to follow here , no pattern of accomplishment. England either turn out with a serviceable squad and muddle their route to a grudging knockout exit. Or, as at the last two tournaments, they arrive in a state of make-do and fall apart against the first decent team that intersects their route. Concerned as ever with deflating the national mood, Southgate even described travelling to the draw as” a learning experience “. With a hospitable group ahead of them England will be happiest travelling in hope, if not much expectation.
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