World Cup: England, with new team & confidence, give nation joy & optimism
|2018 Fifa World Cup on the BBC|
|Host: Russia Dates: 14 June – 15 July|
|Live: Coverage across BBC TV, BBC Radio and BBC Sport website with further coverage on Red Button, Connected TVs and mobile app.|
England’s record-breaking World Cup win against Panama in Nizhny Novgorod sets up a Group G decider with Belgium in Kaliningrad on Thursday.
Gareth Southgate’s squad delivered an impressive show of firepower to beat Panama 6-1 and send optimism soaring as the World Cup knockout stages come into view.
But can the Three Lions continue their momentum against Belgium and then into the last 16?
New England oozing confidence
The sight of Jesse Lingard ball-juggling on the bench alongside the rest of the England squad as they closed out their biggest win at a World Cup finals illustrated the mood of Gareth Southgate’s squad.
England have been relaxed and comfortable since they drove through the gates of their Repino hideaway on the Gulf of Finland – and this emphatic victory over Panama was another powerful statement of intent.
Southgate’s pre-match claim that his side had produced performances to match any other so far at the World Cup may be challenged by Croatia after their win against Argentina, and by their next Group H opponents Belgium, after the manner in which they put away Tunisia.
England have, however, produced displays that have not only gleaned maximum points but lifted confidence and national expectation to levels unknown in recent years.
There is good reason for the joy and optimism, although it must also be placed in context by the mediocre opposition they faced in Tunisia and then the undisciplined Panamanians.
England’s positive and upward progress can also be measured against the low point of the humiliating departure from Chantilly in France two years ago, when they beat an embarrassed retreat from their base after losing to minnows Iceland in the last 16.
Manager Roy Hodgson resigned on the spot and Southgate stepped in after Sam Allardyce’s one-match reign. He has built a squad based around youth bolted on to a system and style of play he believes can show the football world another side to England’s character away from the fighting spirit and passion that has been their long-time default position.
And so far, in the searing heat of Volgograd and Nizhny Novgorod, it is all going to plan as England, led from the front by a player and personality in Harry Kane who personifies the new era Southgate wants, flourish and improve.
Kane is the tournament’s leading scorer and a natural fit as captain, Lingard can produce match-changing moments and all is serene as Southgate keeps his cool amid the noise of this Russian World Cup.
So far. So good.
England’s supporters cannot get carried away as much more will be learned against Belgium and then further into the competition – but there is a new confidence and belief Southgate and his players can take forward in their transitional state irrespective of future events here in Russia.
Southgate’s squad feel the love
England have done little to secure a place in the nation’s affections for many years – probably since the onset of ‘Roomania’ when the 17-year-old Wayne Rooney burst on the scene at Euro 2004.
The litany of failures at World Cups in South Africa in 2010 and Brazil four years later – when a 4-1 beating by Germany in the last 16 was followed by a failure to even advance from the group in South America – hit its nadir with that Euro 2016 loss to Iceland.
Spirits have slumped as opposed to lifted.
Southgate, a civilised and mature personality even before you start to examine his England managerial credentials, is a measured individual whose presence has done much to repair that wreckage and change the feeling towards this England team.
And backed by an England squad containing a combination of varying personalities, from the joker Lingard to the under-stated (at least off the pitch) captain Kane, Southgate is over-seeing a team the nation is learning to love again.
This can all change with one result or poor performance – but the upbeat mood here in Russia is reflected back home and England’s players are well aware there is a growing fund of goodwill towards them.
Southgate will not let expectations get out of hand but he is happy to let hopes rise and for England’s fans to indulge in some blue-sky thinking.
As he said, while referring to his own running accident: “I’m not going to put people off celebrating their wins.