- England “expects” against Colombia – and Sweden or Switzerland
- England’s strengths are, potentially, its weaknesses
- The public mood towards the team will change abruptly in defeat
There’s a neuroticism about this World Cup in England. After the ultimate humiliation of elimination from Euro 2016 at the hands of patronised Iceland, the rational English response was to dismiss any notion of success in Russia. Just getting out of the group without wearing a clown costume would do.
That changed as soon as the draw was revealed last December. England and Belgium were pooled with Tunisia and Panama in what was obviously one of the weakest groups in the tournament. Moreover, the sister group that Group G was paired with for the second round knockout matches contained no recognised giant. It is Colombia who have now emerged from this to block England’s path.
With a soft draw – and the shock elimination of Germany – the more optimistic English media elements have begun talking up their team’s chances. Recognising the unappealing nature of hubristic – and failed – English sides of this century, the idea that the current squad is “likeable” has gained currency. This is simply code for “England expects” – but only because Germany, Italy, Holland, France, Brazil, Argentina, Portugal, and Uruguay – in, other words, all of their traditional nemeses – cannot block their path to an inevitable final.
Instead, “only” Spain bar the way to Moscow, with Russia, Croatia, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, and Colombia mere afterthoughts. The problem is, of course, that pretty much all of those sides have given England serious problems in the not too distant past.
Russia and Croatia eliminated England from Euro 2008. Denmark knocked them out of Euro 84 and along with Sweden put them out of Euro 92. Switzerland spoiled the opening party of Euro 96. All of these teams were dismissed prior to all of these encounters. The “likeable” English will become strangely less likeable if they fall to any of these opponents.
And so to Colombia. Without injured playmaker James Rodriguez, the South Americans are a less worrisome proposition. Yet, they have overcome adversity before, making the last eight in Brazil in the absence of star striker Radamel Falcao. The former Manchester United and Chelsea goalscorer, who never showed his true worth in the Premier League, is a serious threat to the shaky English defence. He’s also got something to prove.
There’s a hype about England that really doesn’t stand scrutiny. They have played the Red Lion, the Dog and Duck, and Roberto’s Reserves in their three matches to date. The tournament starts on Tuesday. That it may also end there seems to have been forgotten by many.
In making the case for England, one needs to dismiss their games to date. However, manager Gareth Southgate – who is genuinely likeable and progressive, an intelligent and considered presence – and striker Harry Kane are strengths. The youth and energy of the team are others. The draw is also less intimidating that it usually is.
However, those strengths are also weaknesses. Southgate is too dignified and reserved for many of the tabloids. They are already sharpening their knives if the resting of players against Belgium “backfires” in defeat to Colombia, as if the performance of his reserves could have any material negative impact on his rested and injury-free first team. They would have eviscerated him if he played the likes of Kane and suffered injuries as a result.
Kane, himself, has become the team’s talisman. If anything happens to him, England have problems. Jamie Vardy requires a different English approach, and it seems as if England’s dependence on the Spurs man risks a collective collapse if he, for any reason, has a tough time against the Colombians.
The youth of this squad brings energy and vigour, but it also brings inexperience. How will these players – now under pressure to get through “the easy half of the draw” – react if they find themselves a goal down to wily Falcao? Is John Stones really likely to survive an aerial bombardment from the imposing Yerry Mina? When you are a “ball-playing” defender, sometimes the rudimentary tasks, like, say, defending, can seem such a chore. How ironic that England could, potentially, be undone by an old-school target man. Pep would not approve.
As for the draw, there is no doubt that England find themselves in the half with less celebrated company. But that simply adds to the expectation. Losing to Brazil would be no shame for an English public that is accustomed to elimination by world football powers. However, the defeat to Iceland two years ago is still largely considered an aberration. Colombia and Sweden or Switzerland are to be swept aside like a European Union red line and to hell with experts and other enemies of the state who suggest caution.
For all that, England do indeed have a good chance of beating Colombia and going further into the tournament. There won’t be much between any of the four sides in their quadrant of the draw. England’s football tradition demands respect. A young emerging generation of players has talent. But, make no mistake, England “expects”. It always does. Until these players can cope with the hubris of a significant section of the public demanding to like them, then it’ll be the same old story.
At least penalties will have been practiced this time.