Group G: England unburdened by usual national optimism
Gareth Southgate can call on some exciting young forwards but midfield looks limited
Harry Kane will captain England at the World Cup. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty
England (18-1, oddshecker)
Who are they?
England are usually swept to the World Cup on a jingoistic tidal wave of optimism, but this year it’s different. The golden generation are long gone, and in their stead stand a squad of perfectly nice and adequate Premier League footballers. Gareth Southgate can call on one bonafide world-class player in Harry Kane, who will be supported by a cast of stars in the making – including Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Dele Alli. The defence is okay – the paucity of midfield options a real worry.
And English trepidation over this tournament is not just confined to the calibre of the squad – fears of off-pitch violence à la Marseille 2016 have been exaggerated but are not unfounded. As a result, the build-up across the Irish Sea has been more subdued than usual. Come June 14th St George’s flags will adorn every car in middle England, and Fat Les will still be played on loop. But ultimately a last-eight finish – and minimal time spent brushing shoulders with Russian hooligans – will constitute a roaring success for the English.
World Cup moment
Anybody old enough to remember England’s victory on home soil is likely to be pushing 60-years-old at least now, but the boys of 1966 are still the benchmark for any English national side. The surviving members are getting very old – Bobby Charlton is 80, brother Jack 83 – but they remain revered.
How did they get here?
At a boring canter, with eight wins and two draws from their 10 games - they are now unbeaten in qualifiers since 2009. Harry Kane’s 93rd-minute equaliser against Scotland at Hampden Park was the only moment worth remembering.
Gareth Southgate has recently begun to shed his reputation of being too nice and eager to please, and is slowly starting to shape this England side into his own. Southgate came into the job earlier than expected thanks to Sam Allardyce’s big mouth and his pint of wine. Don’t expect many fireworks – but he will provide a plan and a coherent tactical system, which is more than can be said for many of his predecessors.
The main man
Harry Kane is arguably the world’s best centre forward, returning 30 Premier League goals this season. He made himself look a bit weird when trying to claim Christian Eriksen’s goal against Stoke – and then by failing to see the funny side of a tweet which suggested he was in Chris Smalling’s pocket – but a selfish streak isn’t necessarily the worst trait in a striker. He needs good service and pacey support.
The one to watch
Marcus Rashford is still very raw but the Manchester United forward remains a joy to behold. Will either help form a starting attack full of youth, pace and verve – or come off the bench to give tiring defences twisted blood and cold sweats.
By finishing first or second in Group G, England will set up a last-16 tie against either Poland, Senegal, Colombia or Japan. The last-eight is realistic, but a likely quarter-final against Germany or Brazil should prove a bridge too far.
Goalkeepers: Jordan Pickford (Everton), Jack Butland (Stoke City), Nick Pope (Burnley).
Defenders: Kyle Walker (Manchester City), John Stones (Manchester City), Harry Maguire (Leicester City), Danny Rose (Tottenham), Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Ashley Young (Manchester United), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Phil Jones (Manchester United), Kieran Trippier (Tottenham).
Midfielders: Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Eric Dier (Tottenham), Dele Alli (Tottenham), Jesse Lingard (Manchester United), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Crystal Palace), Fabian Delph (Manchester City).