On Friday afternoon, just after half-past-four, Diego Maradona gave England a heavily belated slice of justice – drawing Gareth Southgate’s side into the easiest of all eight groups.
The Three Lions will face Tunisia, Panama and Belgium in Russia. Many kids at home were probably absolutely delighted by this news, but we’ve been here before and it didn’t end well.
In 2010, England’s team had it all their own way. A World Cup in a not-so-sweltering South Africa, with Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, John Terry and Wayne Rooney in fine form, and with a manager seen to be the most prestigious and business-like manager The Three Lions had ever acquired. That same team were unable to beat Algeria. For 2018, Algeria haven’t even qualified. England and the Algerians shared the tournament’s easiest group with an uninspiring United States and the sloppy Slovenia too. It was a group that inevitably England qualified from, but qualified from behind the United States. That was unacceptable [as was getting hammered in the next round by a rampant Germany].
In every of the one-hundred-and-ninety-seven days until The Three Lions kick their summer off against the Tunisians, Gareth Southgate needs to be thinking, and will be thinking, about how his side can negotiate the three teams that he now knows his team are set to face.
Tunisia were drawn from Pot 3, and Panama, England’s second test, from Pot 4. But we shouldn’t let this mislead us. For these are the two weakest sides at the tournament. In the past year, Tunisia have been knocked of the African Nations Cup by Burkina Faso and then failed to find the net in their final qualifier – at home to the mighty Libya. Their best player is Wahbi Khazri – who Sunderland fans will have mixed memories of. His team is Rennes from Ligue 1 in France. And that is about as good as they get. Tunisia have played sixty-one players in the past twelve months. Only two of them have hit double-figures in goals for the national team. This is a team that concedes goals, that has lost five of its matches in 2017, and that has not been at a World Cup since a Group-Stage exit in 2006. Gareth Southgate will desperately want to see off the Tunisians in England’s first match at Russia, because they are very, very beatable, because England have an atrocious record in tournament openers, and because in 1998 he started England’s first match at the World Cup: a 2-0 win against …Tunisia.
Panama have never qualified for the World Cup before. They are here because of an eighty-seventh minute goal against Costa Rica that never actually crossed the line. They are the oldest team to have qualified for the finals – with their top-scorer, captain and goalkeeper all aged thirty-six. In the qualifiers, they were walloped 4-0 by the United States, who famously failed to reach the finals, and were also beaten by Trinidad & Tobago. Panama have not got a rich history in football, but in the past year have denied World Cup mainstays Honduras and the USA a place at the greatest show on earth. That should be legacy enough for them. Their manager Hernán Darío Gómez has World Cup experience as manager of Colombia and Ecuador. With Colombiain 1998, his management of a ‘golden generation’ of Colombian players came to an end as the side were knocked out in the Group-Stage by …England.
Again, England should beat Panama. But, maybe unlike Tunisia, it should be by a hefty scoreline.
And finally, on June the 28th, England will face familiar teammates, as they go up against Roberto Martinez’s Belgium. The best Belgian side of all time. England’s players and manager will know better than anyone the capabilities of the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Thibault Courtois and Eden Hazard. Whether these players will be adequately handed by Jake Livermore, Eric Dier and Michael Keane is perhaps not a pleasant ponder. But if Gareth Bale’s Wales knocked them out of Euro 2016, England, on their day, can cause a team threatening to never fulfil its potential some real damage.
There is cause for optimism: the group, the time left to prepare, a squad selection dilemma in many areas, and a Second-Round tie with probably either Colombia or Poland. However, how well England do next summer will be, more than anything else, determined by how they play themselves. If it goes well, there could be a slot in the quarter-finals [or even further on] for Southgate’s lions. If it doesn’t, there could be a battering from Belgium and a Costa Rica-esque stalemate with some Panamanian veterans – already through to the Last-16…