Sunday 26 May 2019

England dare to dream of reaching Holy Grail

Southgate tells players they must be brave enough to seize the moment

England players in jovial mood during training in Moscow yesterday Photo: Alex Morton/Getty Images
England players in jovial mood during training in Moscow yesterday Photo: Alex Morton/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

English football used to come to tournaments thinking it owned them. The next 1966 was a matter of when, not if.

Now, England's supporters watching this World Cup feel guilty about looking too far ahead. But excitement burns as well.

This conflicted state is unavoidable. History is always on England's shoulder, telling them to calm down.

Gareth Southgate's side have beaten Tunisia and Panama and lost to Belgium B.

Tunisia are ranked 21 in the world and succumbed only in added time, to a Harry Kane header. Panama, ranked 55, mistook the World Cup for Greco-Roman wrestling and were thrashed 6-1. Belgium's shadow side were superior to England's.

Colombia are dangerous. And yet, opportunity is knocking for Southgate's men.

There is no law that prohibits romance and realism co-existing, no harm in dreaming of Samara and St Petersburg and even the Luzhniki Stadium at journey's end.

It would be a joyless build-up to the Colombia game in Moscow's Spartak Stadium if all peering into the future was banned. That future is wildly unpredictable - as Russia 2018 has amply demonstrated.

Italy and Holland were stopped at the qualification stage. World champions Germany were halted at the group phase, with defeats by Mexico and South Korea. Portugal, champions of Europe, were sent packing by Uruguay. Spain, the 2010 World Cup winners, were knocked out by Russia on penalties, despite posting 1,100 passes. Argentina and Lionel Messi have disappeared, too.

This purge on Russian soil left only four previous World Cup winners in the tournament.

The others are Brazil, who beat Mexico to reach the quarter-finals; France, the world's best 20 years ago; and England and Uruguay, both from the mists of time.

More particularly, the bottom half of the draw is less intimidating, because it guarantees a place in the final for one of Colombia, Sweden, Switzerland, Croatia, Russia or England.

The forbidden pleasure of thinking about England's golden opportunity this way will feel even less permissible when the teams are walking out at the Spartak Stadium, when the future will have strict parameters: 90 minutes.

Colombia are enough to be dealing with. Ultimately England are not just facing the bottom half of the draw. Heavyweight opposition is rumbling through the top half as well.

There were two certainties here 24 hours before kick-off. One was that Southgate would be asked about the opportunity opening up for England. The other was that he would refuse to discuss anything beyond Colombia. To do so would be heresy.

Southgate hinted that presumption had been part of the problem with the team who lost to Iceland in Nice two years ago.

Assuming Iceland would melt, Roy Hodgson's players scored, fell behind, then lacked the mental discipline to turn the tables back round.

Just three players to play in that Iceland defeat at Euro 2016 - Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane - are expected to start tonight's match, but the memory of that night is still raw.

Southgate's England are on virgin territory in Russia. Fatigue has been eliminated both as a factor and as an excuse should Colombia win.

England's first team have had a break of eight days since the Panama win because Southgate rested so many of them against Belgium. In a World Cup, eight days is virtually a sabbatical.

Southgate has urged his players to seize their opportunity in a tournament that has suddenly become wide open.

"Life is always about opportunity presenting itself and taking control of it, taking charge of it," he said.

"We said we didn't want this tournament to take hold of us and push us around. We wanted to attack it and make sure we were in charge of our destiny. We feel we are in a good place, but we have to stop talking and go and deliver.

"As a team and a squad you want to write your own story and history, but we can't look too far ahead.

"We have to go out and put on a good display and get ourselves through. That's what we're thinking about. That's what we're concentrating most on, but you always have to have aims and ambitions, dreams and goals. That's important.

"We have all been hurt by disappointment but maybe some of our expectations at times have been a little unrealistic. I think we have had more realism about what we have done this time and we should all enjoy the journey.

"Whenever I have been to tournaments, it has been a carnival and a festival of football and we have often overlooked that."

At World Cup finals, teams are measured by what they do but also what happens around them: the twists and turns of history, of which Spain losing to Russia was a big one.

For now, England are a side who have won two and lost one and need three victories to reach the final. But the imagination is surely right to glow with possibilities. Why else are Southgate and his players here?

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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