Will this be England’s time at the World Cup?
Gareth Southgate (Getty Images)
Johannesburg - With just under 60 seconds gone in stoppage time on June 18,it seemed another false start was on the cards in England’s Soccer World Cup opening gameagainst Tunisia in Group G.
That was until Harry Kane used his predatory instincts in the area to head home Harry Maguire’s flick-on to seal a dramatic three points.
The momentum continued in the next game when they demolished a very average Panama 6-1, largely courtesy of a Kane hat-trick, and optimism levels were restored that something special might take place in Russia.
With passage secured to the last 16, a meaningless defeat to Belgium has not damaged this belief, especially when Gareth Southgate made nine changes to his starting line-up and Marcus Rashford missed a glaring one-on-one opportunity.
However, there are question marks about whether England can really challenge for their first world title since 1966.
In the victory over Tunisia, both goals came from set pieces, and against the Panamanians four of the six goals were from set pieces - two penalties and two corner kicks - while one was a fluke involving a Ruben Loftus-Cheek mishit strike that went in off Kane.
In fact, only one other goal has come from a passing move involving a structured build-up and, even then, Jesse Lingard’s curling top corner strike against Panama came from broken play.
With that said, while Lingard was fortunate to gain the ball back following an initial failed one-two with Raheem Sterling, his finish was outstanding.
Being well drilled at set pieces is not necessarily a weakness in the knockout stages, when the legs start to tire and a goal is needed from somewhere before the trauma of penalties.
However, 2010 World Cup champions Spain scored just one set piece in South Africa. In 2014, Germany’s haul of 15 goals included three from dead-ball situations, which means 80% of their goals tally came from open play.
On both occasions, the Spanish and the Germans dominated possession and could play their way through teams, showing that they had a playing style that was ingrained in their DNA.
So far, the Three Lions have dominated the ball, but it has come against weaker sides that have defended deep in numbers, meaning that a truer test of their mettle will occur inlater rounds against better opposition.
In friendly international preparation for the tournament, the English were held 0-0 by Germany and Brazil, as well as 1-1 by an Italy who failed to qualify for the tournament.
The evidence suggests that Southgate’s 3-1-4-2 is effective against sides outside of FIFA’s top 20, but as is yet unproven against the elite.
Facing 16th-ranked Colombia in the last 16 on Tuesday presents a real examination of England’s ability to challenge for the global showpiece.
The balance of the draw favours the English - should they defeat Los Cafeteros in Moscow they will face either Switzerland or Sweden in the quarter-finals.
Therefore, they have plenty of motivation to put on a performance that disproves any notion that they are not yet a finished product as a team.
Scoring a few more goals in open play against the South Americans will no doubt add strength to this argument, although, at this stage of the proceedings, all that matters is collecting the victory, be it from a dead ball or otherwise.