Monday 15 October 2018

Jamie Carragher: England expects - and that's usually their biggest problem

England boss Gareth Southgate is all smiles with Belgium manager Roberto Martinez after they were drawn together in Group G. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
England boss Gareth Southgate is all smiles with Belgium manager Roberto Martinez after they were drawn together in Group G. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Jamie Carragher

Gareth Southgate will be leaving Moscow feeling relieved and excited after the World Cup draw. There is only one problem. The expectation levels for his side have now expanded massively.

This was a great draw for England. It could not have been any better had Southgate gone on stage and picked out the names.

It is not only the first stage that presents an opportunity for progress, but beyond that the two qualifiers from England's group meet those from one of the weakest groups in the competition, where Poland are top seeds. That offers a realistic path to the latter stages, but adds to the pressure. Herein lies the biggest concern.

On those occasions that England's players are expected to win, they often produce their most disappointing performances. In recent major tournaments they have failed to beat Algeria and Costa Rica, and of course they lost to Iceland at the European Championships. England will be delighted to be drawn with Tunisia and Panama, but there can be no country more wary of (or less justified in demonstrating) complacency than England.

My own experiences in international football remind me that games against lower seeds are least enjoyable, as you know everyone at home believes it should be a matter of how many goals you score rather than whether you win. It rarely, if ever, goes that way.

Before the draw, I would have argued the greatest threat to reaching the quarter-finals was a general lack of quality in the squad compared to the strongest nations.

Now, months before the first game, the biggest obstacle I see to England reaching the last eight is a familiar one. It is psychological.

Southgate and his staff have to get into the minds of the players and ensure they go to Russia and embrace the tournament, grasp the opportunity and enjoy themselves. Too often you see players looking miserable when they get there.

There is a catalogue of errors from recent tournaments Southgate can reference, all of which contributed to a miserable competition. Personally, I hated being secluded for four weeks, unable to sample the culture of the host nation.

There will be plenty of reminders between now and June of those so-called minnows England have underperformed against, and no doubt those of us suggesting the team should comfortably beat those countries will be accused of overconfidence. It does not change the fact England should be winning such games.

I am sure Panama and Tunisia have their qualities to earn qualification into the tournament, but if England cannot overcome them to reach the knockout stage, the post-tournament soul-searching will last even longer than it did after South Africa and Brazil.

The meeting with Belgium - the last in the group - should be a shoot-out to decide who finishes first and second. It should be the perfect conclusion to the group.

Facing Belgium will tell us exactly what level England are at, or how much they need to improve, in the event of meeting another of the favourites later on.

I expect Belgium to win the group. It is a great draw for Roberto Martinez, as well as Southgate. It is important to face a top-quality team early on, and even better if such a fixture will not decide your fate in the competition.

Martinez must be thrilled. His knowledge of English football will help him. He may also think he has something to prove after the unhappy conclusion to his spell with Everton. In Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, he has the two best Premier League players, far superior to anything Southgate has to choose from.

Beyond that, I believe predictable names will progress into the last eight. Brazil look capable of banishing their painful memories of four years ago, and I would expect Germany, France, Spain and Belgium to lead the European challenge. My personal hope is for Argentina to win it to complete a perfect career for Lionel Messi. I doubt England can go beyond the last eight. But if they make it that far, Southgate will have outperformed Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson.

The bar has been set low by recent performances. I can't believe it will be so dismal this time. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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