Monday 27 May 2019

England have a shot but will likely lose in Russian roulete

England’s Kieran Trippier, Jack Butland and Jordan Henderson bowling in St Petersburg yesterday. Photo: Reuters
England’s Kieran Trippier, Jack Butland and Jordan Henderson bowling in St Petersburg yesterday. Photo: Reuters

James Lawton

Could it really be true that England have a passable chance of becoming world champions just two years after slumping glassy-eyed on a French field after being sent home by Iceland - and then firing Sam Allardyce after one match in office?

The answer is, yes, just maybe, but no is 100 times more likely.

Indeed, there is another bigger question we must ask - why this World Cup has been shedding its favoured colours faster than an embattled chameleon?

The fact is we have never had a World Cup quite like this before.

We have never seen such a slaughter of the football vanities, never been aware of so many unfancied teams with the tactical wherewithal and defensive mettle to sabotage such starry figures as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Thomas Mueller.

Japan, having beaten Colombia rather more conclusively than England did, almost downed the multi-talented Belgium with their Samurai spirit and defensive rigour.

France, buoyed by the clinical brilliance of Kylian Mbappe, were, reasonably enough, rated by many as the most talented team still standing, but they don't need telling they face a huge challenge against Uruguay this afternoon.


Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani have been capturing the headlines after the ransacking of Russia and Portugal but ask any steely old football man who has the best defence in the competition and he will tell you it is Uruguay - by a mile.

Uruguay have long specialised in embarrassing their alleged betters - and not least when England launched their winning campaign at Wembley in 1966.

The gloom created across the land by Uruguay's goalless draw - "a masterpiece of stultification" said one observer - consumed even the leading TV pundit of the day, Jimmy Hill. He declared, "We won't win anything with this lot."

When you consider "this lot" included Bobby Charlton, Jimmy Greaves - who in the end couldn't hold his place despite his goal-scoring genius - and Bobby Moore, and it's not hard to imagine Hill's reaction had he been in Volgograd when Gareth Southgate's England required added time to beat the feeble defence of Tunisia.

Nor would the subsequent penalty shootout victory over Colombia have soothed the doubts.

So why the growing swell of Three Lion chests? Much of it, no doubt, is to do with Harry Kane, the sense that he is one of those insatiable achievers who grows a little more each time the bar against him is set higher.

There is also the fact that Southgate, who played under and was deeply impressed by the man-management style of Terry Venables when England reached the semi-finals of Euro '96, appears to have created new and valuable attitudes in the England dressing room. The very least that can be said of them is that under Southgate they do not appear, give or take the odd pout from Dele Alli, to be in danger of being impaled on their own egos.

They may well have developed the crucial asset of competitive patience - and deepened sense of responsibility when they pull on the national shirt. This hasn't been a mark of many England teams since that one World Cup win.

In fact, a more dominant feature has been a strain of arrogance which, ironically enough, may have been first put in place by the great Alf Ramsey when he decided a semi-final place against Italy in the 1970 World Cup was already assured - and withdrew Bobby Charlton to preserve his energy for that game even as he continued to stifle the danger of Germany's Franz Beckenbauer.

Ramsey said it was the worst mistake of his football life and the rest is rather forlorn history.

The golden generation of David Beckham, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard and new boy Wayne Rooney were supposed to put it all right. Then, Beckham proceeded to earn one of the silliest red cards in the history of the World Cup against Argentina in 1998 and four years later in Japan jumped out of a tackle which would have staunched the flow of 10-man Brazil's winning goal in the quarter-final.

Rooney was red-carded four years later in the quarter-final against Portugal for the wild stamp of someone who had lost his head - a flashpoint which provoked Ronaldo's notoriously knowing wink to his bench.

It is a story of self-detonated disaster. In South Africa in 2010 Rooney complained that he was unutterably bored in the training camp and insulted England fans after a shocking performance against Algeria.

After that game, England coach Fabio Capello said he failed to recognise his team out the field. Earlier, when an assistant trainer told him the England players were restive about a shortage of electronic games, he smiled his iciest smile and asked, "Can't they read books?"

They certainly couldn't read German intentions in the round of 16. They were humiliated 4-1.

Now, four years after leaving Brazil at the group stage, and taking, unbelievably enough, some comfort from a draw with Costa Rica, some say they can go all the way. The hard reaction is that it is a leap of faith worthy of Padre Pio.


No doubt the field has been levelled quite relentlessly. But then Sweden and, most likely, a Croatia driven by the inspiring Luka Modric come without any kind of guarantees in the quarter and semi-finals.

The good news for England is that Southgate has handled his team well, created, it seems, a team ethos detached from the follies and the more ill-founded affectations of the past.

So far, so good, but then we must look at what in some ways are the almost indivisible dangers lurking on the other side of the draw.

France, Uruguay, Belgium and Brazil all have the players and the technique to unravel anyone's happy ending.

England, extremely creditably, may have put aside some of the old vanities. But that hardly takes them beyond the range of some fresh slaughter in Russia's roulette wheel of a World Cup.

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