Football: England temper Russia 2018 optimism

England's Harry Kane celebrating his 90th-minute winner against Slovenia. The in-form Spurs striker will be expected to lead the line at next year's World Cup Finals in Russia.
England's Harry Kane celebrating his 90th-minute winner against Slovenia. The in-form Spurs striker will be expected to lead the line at next year's World Cup Finals in Russia.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

They qualify easily but, having pulled up no trees in their group, expectations are low

LONDON • England might have extended their unbeaten run in qualifying to 38 games and reached their sixth consecutive World Cup Finals. But at least one routine has ended: Their fans no longer expect.

The Three Lions will participate in Russia next year with the Football Association's chief executive Martin Glenn cautious about their chances after the team qualified with a lacklustre performance against Slovenia.

Thursday's 1-0 victory at an under-capacity Wembley, thanks to a last-gasp Harry Kane goal, sealed their place in the Finals as group winners, but the laboured manner of the win drew harsh criticism.

The majority of the crowd had already lost interest in a match so puerile that fans spent most of the second half amusing themselves by flying paper aeroplanes.

"I think you've got to be realistic looking at our historical performance," Glenn told the BBC, having earlier admitted that England "do not travel well" and are still undermined by "a brittleness in unfamiliar circumstances".

"We're ranked 15th in the world and that ranking's there for a reason, but what I think we all really want and can expect with Gareth (Southgate) in the way that he's setting the team up and working on them is that we want to go out there and fulfil our potential."

England have disappointed since their only major tournament win at the 1966 World Cup on home soil, and realism has set in.

"Tonight highlighted where we are," said Southgate, with the England manager conceding it was "blindingly obvious we could have played better".

"Are we are going to become Spain in the next eight months? No we're not. They have a squad full of players who have won Champions Leagues and league titles. We haven't got players who have proven themselves on that stage.

"But now they have a chance to play on that stage at the World Cup. That was why it was imperative we got there."

Still, the big question is whether Southgate can succeed where Roy Hodgson and all of his recent predecessors failed by ensuring that England at least look and feel the part when they turn up in Russia.

They have a clutch of talented young players - John Stones, 23, Dele Alli, 21, Raheem Sterling, 22, Kane, 24, Marcus Rashford, 19 - but nothing this team have done in recent years has indicated that they are ready to take Russia by storm.

The partnerships in defence and midfield have not allowed English fans to say with any degree of certainty that their side have the nucleus of a decent team.

Question marks persist over Joe Hart in goal and over the quality of England's options in wide areas.

Kane is one of the few players who would be considered a must-pick, but all the ringing endorsements are based on his outstanding performances for Tottenham Hotspur, rather than on what he has achieved so far in an England shirt.

And Thursday demonstrated that for all the creative potential of certain players, they lack a plan when it comes to possession play.

"England are a million miles away from winning the World Cup," former England defender Phil Neville told the BBC. "If you can't play against Slovenia at home, you can't play on the world stage."

After negotiating a poor qualifying group, they will have a chance to test themselves against better opposition when world champions Germany and Brazil turn up for friendlies at Wembley next month.

If any lowering of England's expectations were still required, those two heavyweight nations should provide it.

THE TIMES, LONDON, THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2017, with the headline 'England temper Russia 2018 optimism'. Print Edition | Subscribe