The Three Lions may run rampant
Harry Kane (Getty Images)
Johannesburg - England appear to have come a long way in a relatively short space of time from their so-called golden generation of stars.
The likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney alongside John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole – from all of whom great things were expected – competed at successive and unsuccessful World Cups.
It was anticipated that this group would be world beaters by an overly ambitious and expectant England support, to finally end their wait for silverware since World Cup glory in 1966.
So, it was felt that the Three Lions’ time had come and gone following poor tournaments in Japan and South Korea, Germany, South Africa and, most recently, in Brazil.
A relatively new-look squad under then manager Roy Hodgson was recruited for Uefa Euro 2016 and, despite their shock loss to Iceland of all teams in the round of 16, and after some indifferent performances against Russia, Slovakia and Wales, it was the first real glimpse of the new generation of players for fans to rally around.
Youngsters Dele Alli, John Stones, Eric Dier, Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford had all impressed for their Premier League clubs and were obvious inclusions.
But while that competition may have come too soon for the young players, it was a massively important learning curve for the group, who have now been together long enough to suggest that Russia may just well be where England finally shines following an impressive qualifying campaign.
With Gareth Southgate at the helm – a manager who has matured into a serious international head coach – there is a real belief among the current top players, coupled with a growing maturity and desire to do well.
Southgate began his coaching career in less than spectacular fashion during his time at Middlesbrough before coming into his own as head of the England Under-21 team, where his calm and measured style began to take effect.
Serious concerns remain, not least that England face a star-studded Belgium, an unpredictable Tunisia and newbies Panama – alongside some lingering squad selection doubts.
The goalkeeping department is probably the most scrutinised area of the English team, with Everton’s 24-year-old keeper Jordan Pickford expected to start ahead of Jack Butland, who was relegated with Stoke City, while Nick Pope’s only England appearance came as a substitute in the 2-0 friendly win over Costa Rica on Thursday evening.
Questions will also be raised regarding the defence as some are puzzled about Gary Cahill’s inclusion, while Phil Jones and Stones have a penchant for clumsy mistakes in important games.
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Harry Maguire are untested at international level, and it remains to be seen whether Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young will be able to replicate their club form. Kyle Walker is probably the highest rated of the England defenders, while Danny Rose was on the periphery of the Tottenham Hotspur squad this season behind Welsh left-back Ben Davies.
It is in midfield and attack that England fans can get excited. It’s interesting to note that Southgate has included five Spurs players in his squad – Trippier, Rose, Dier, Alli and Kane – who will help the side to settle when they kick off against Tunisia on June 18, and they will form the real basis of the team’s spine.
Captain Kane, though, will need to be at his goal-scoring best and must enjoy an epic tournament for England to be able to throw off their shackles as flops on the world stage.
Coupled with significantly reduced expectations from those who follow the team, fans may well be shocked to see the Three Lions astonish their detractors and spring a few surprise results in Russia.
Meanwhile, Manchester City’s dominance in the recently finished Premier League season will carry on to the World Cup as they have more (16) players than any other club.
They are followed by Spanish La Liga giants Real Madrid and Barcelona, who have 15 and 14 representatives, respectively. – TEAMtalk Media