Gareth Southgate is wary of wounded Wales but remains upbeat about England’s World Cup chances despite labouring to a goalless draw against the United States.
After enjoying a dream start to their quest for glory in Qatar, the swagger and style displayed in Monday’s 6-2 thrashing of Iran was missing in their second Group B clash.
England knew they would qualify for the last 16 with a game to spare if they beat the USA, yet they floundered under the Friday night lights and were perhaps lucky to escape with a 0-0 draw.
Southgate’s men remain on course to progress to the knock-out phase and know qualification is assured so long as they avoid a four-goal defeat to neighbours Wales on Tuesday night.
Robert Page appeared to write off Welsh hopes after their draw with the US was compounded by a Friday’s late 2-0 heartbreak against Iran, but the England boss expects a reaction from them.
“Our first objective is to qualify from the group,” Southgate said after the Al Bayt Stadium stalemate. “We’ve still a little bit to do in terms of doing that.
“But we’re also still in pole position to win the group if we can win the game next week, and that’s got to be our aim.
“That’s of course going to be a very, very tough game again. You know, Wales are going to be hurt by what’s happened today and we’re going to have to be at our very best.
“There are very few teams I’ve known over the years who get nine points in their group [due to] the different types of challenges that you’ve got to dig in and different sides of your character that you’ve got to show, and we had to show a different side tonight.”
If England top the pool, they will face the runners-up in Group A – likely Ecuador or Senegal – next Sunday at Al Bayt Stadium, which would also be the venue for their potential quarter-final and semi-final.
Should Southgate’s side finish second, a Saturday showdown against likely Group A winners the Netherlands would await at the Khalifa International Stadium.
Whoever the opponent, England will need to up their game from Friday’s ponderous performance that left Southgate focusing on the positives.
“When you’re in a World Cup, there are different challenges, different types of opposition,” he said.
“You’re never going to cruise through games like we did the other day and I knew on the back of that type of performance the other day it’s very hard to hit that sort of height.
“So, today was a game that I’m actually really pleased with what we’ve done. I think the mentality was good.”
There were boos at the final whistle but Southgate was not certain they were aimed at him or his England side.
Whether they were or not, there was clearly frustration and bemusement from onlookers about his slowness to move away from plan A and the decision to leave super-talented Phil Foden on the bench.
“I mean, I don’t know how early you think that should be,” Southgate said of the changes.
“We decided for Marcus [Rashford] and Jack [Grealish] to change the two wingers.
“I didn’t think it was a game for Phil inside because a lot a lot more defensive work, a very strong midfield that you’re playing against. He doesn’t play there normally.
“We brought him on as the 10 the other day, but it’s not a position he plays at his club.
“So, there’s a reason for that without the ball but he’s a super player, we love him.
“But we thought Marcus’s speed and Jack’s ability to be able to get hold of the ball and buy fouls and get us up the pitch just at a moment where we needed a little bit of control in the game [would help].”