Monday 20 January 2020

Stephen Hunt: England look like contenders but World Cup pressure is new ball game

Raheem Sterling
Raheem Sterling

Stephen Hunt

Looking at England in their two friendlies during the international break, they will be serious contenders for this summer's World Cup. Can they win it? Yes, 100 per cent. The big question is will they be able to handle the pressure.

I know these were two friendly games, and we should remember that while Netherlands and Italy are box-office names and traditionally good, strong nations, they both failed to qualify for the finals in Russia.

But England played with a real freedom in both matches and after they made some tactical changes their adaptability to the different formations was very impressive. They have pace and goals up front and they are strong and disciplined in midfield. The one area you could question is their defence. It is not so much their ability to defend, or the fact manager Gareth Southgate prefers defenders who can play and may take risks, but their experience on the big stage.

It is all nice and easy playing at a three-quarter-full Wembley, with a pleasant atmosphere, and no pressure, but we are three months away from the tournament. Apart from a few Russians, Gareth Southgate and the other 31 managers and coaches, no one is seriously thinking about the World Cup right now.

But the pressure will soon be ramped up and before you know it, you are an England player going to the World Cup finals. You have to handle The Sun front page which reads, 'Bring It Home Lads' and all the media attention. Pretty soon the squad, their families and, of course, the supporters, are big news.

When I played for Ireland, I always knew that when I looked for my family in the stands, or saw their pictures on TV or in the papers, that they would be safe among the Irish supporters, enjoying the craic and having a great time, no matter how I was playing, and would not have a moment's bother.

Can you handle it as an England player if you look up and see your gran and parents and wife and kids, sitting in front of some snarling thug who wants to take on the world because you're drawing 0-0 with Panama and can't break them down?

They are fortunate that, in Southgate, they have a manager who has suffered his fair share of stick after missing the fateful England penalty in the shootout against Germany in Euro '96. If anyone can help his players deal with criticism, it's him.

That's why Jesse Lingard is a good fit in this team. He wears his socks right up and his sleeves over his hands, as if he's absolutely freezing, but he clearly doesn't give a toss, and you need players like him in a tournament squad. And it looks like Southgate has a couple of lads who will handle the pressure.

Southgate has certainly not wasted the last year watching Premier League games. He has been looking beyond players' form and their reputations, and studying tactics, formations, players' ability to adapt, and how managers react to different situations. He seems to have ditched Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill from his defence but he is not stupid. He has learned from seeing Cesar Azpilicueta playing as the right-sided centre-back for Chelsea that Kyle Walker can play there in the three, as he did so well the other night.

There are fantastic options in attack and players who can express themselves. Harry Kane is a world-class player and a striker who will not go hiding if he misses chances. Jamie Vardy will be an unbelievable impact substitute, with the possibility of using Kane as a number 10. And Raheem Sterling can be a match-winner, although he can look like a world-beater in one game and can't trap a ball in the next.

There were a lot of similarities with Manchester City's style of play in this England side and they looked comfortable in possession or when they invited pressure from the opposition. They could be a very good side but can they do it under pressure?

While England's players will be in Russia, not one of the English Premier League referees will be. That seems very odd to me but it did remind me of Giovanni Trapattoni's comments after our defeat to France and Thierry Henry's handball. "Beware FIFA!"

There are Premier League referees and there are FIFA referees. And those who can understand what FIFA want from their referees will obviously get their rewards but I cannot believe that the world's governing body cannot find four officials to represent the world's biggest league.

It is a kick in the teeth for the Premier League referees but it is difficult to feel sorry for them. Maybe the decision does say something about the standard of their officiating, rather than the ability to play football politics. Mark Clattenburg refereed the big three finals in one season and since he quit, no one has stepped forward to take his place as the so-called best English referee.

Some of the 32 World Cup referees and their assistants will not have experienced the big-game pressure you get in every Premier League match. They will also have to deal with VAR. And that is really starting to concern me. It is just not going to work.

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