England’s fortunes at a World Cup always seem more scrutinised than any other country – whether that’s because of the sport’s history, the hubris of fans or the base desire to revel in their failures, it’s a pressure unlike any other.
The reality is that their recent tournament form has been excellent. But one of the most cruel notions of modern sport is that every team that fails to win the title, in any competition, is dismissed as chokers, frauds or underachievers.
England reaching the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup and the final of Euro 2020 and losing both in heart-breaking fashion should be viewed as a positives, but instead Qatar looms as a ‘last-chance saloon’ for manager Gareth Southgate and several of his senior players.
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While they’re fourth or fifth favourites at most sports books, they aren’t being talked about in the same breath as Brazil, Argentina and France, or even a couple of teams at longer odds than England itself, such as Portugal and Germany.
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Kalvin Phillips, their best player at the Euros, has won his race against the clock to be fit for the tournament, while creative midfielder James Maddison, who has been in ridiculous form for Leicester City, was a pleasant surprise when the final squad was announced.
It’s not exactly a cakewalk of a group, though. It’s the only one where every team is ranked inside the top 20 in the world rankings, and all three opponents will no doubt be eyeing off the biggest scalp – particularly a buoyant Welsh squad, the best they’ve produced in generations.
Teams (FIFA World Ranking):
The Three Lions breezed through qualification, going undefeated with eight wins and two draws in their European group.
Few teams had a more comfortable time getting to the World Cup than Iran – both they and South Korea romped through a lopsided Asian qualifying group, with the former securing qualification with three of their 10 games to spare.
Senegal narrowly overcame Egypt on penalties to secure their spot – although it wasn’t without controversy, with a collection of laser pointers in the crowd being shone in visiting players’ eyes.
Wales were one of the last teams to qualify, having to go through the play-offs after finishing second in their group. Gareth Bale bagged a brace as they beat Austria and again scored in a 1-0 win over Ukraine to book his team’s first World Cup berth since 1958.
Fixtures (times in AEDT):
England vs Iran – Tuesday November 22, 12am
USA vs Wales – Tuesday November 22, 6am
Wales vs Iran – Friday November 25, 9pm
England vs USA – Saturday November 26, 6am
Wales vs England – Wednesday November 30, 6am
Iran vs USA – Wednesday November 30, 6am
As dour as England have been at times, they had no issues grinding through qualifiers, nor were they troubled in the group stage at the last tournament, and should easily progress here.
The opening clash between Wales and the USA is massive, and could go a long way to deciding who advances to the last 16.
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