On Friday, we learned who England will face in the group stage of the World Cup in Russia. In what was a surprisingly prompt ceremony, ably handled by Gary Linekar, England were drawn with Belgium, Tunisia and Panama. It’s a group that stirs mixed feelings in me.
On the one hand, Tunisia and Panama were the so-called easy teams of Pot 3 and Pot 4. Had you asked England supports who they would have wanted, most have of them would have picked those two. All being well, both England and Belgium should be able to get six points from those two games, which would make qualifying for the knockout rounds rather straightforward. It would leave England and Belgium in a straight shoot-out for top spot.
On the other hand, nobody in England should be celebrating when they know this team’s capacity for screw ups. I recall the tabloid’s glee when we drew Algeria, the USA and Slovenia in the 2010 World Cup. The front pages were splashed with E.A.S.Y (England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks – very classy). Only, it wasn’t easy. Draw against USA and Algeria and a narrow win over Slovenia got us through the group before Germany dumped us out in the round of sixteen. A fresher wound would be the Iceland defeat in the 2016 European Championships. Having toiled through a group of Wales, Russia and Slovakia, we all thought Iceland would be easy opponents. The rest, as they say, is history.
Tunisia and Panama cannot be underestimated. That’s not just me paying lip service to those teams, but these are nations who have a huge passion for the World Cup and will make the absolute most of their participation. Just watch the outpouring of emotion when Panama secured qualification.
England’s attention can’t just be on Belgium, although for that many that will be the case. This one has been billed as the Premier League derby for the sheer number of home-based players that will be involved. Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Marouane Fellaini, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku… even manager Roberto Martinez and his assistant Thierry Henry have Premier League ties. Belgium have one of the most talented squads in the competition, but have yet to the find the right formula in major tournaments. Martinez, meanwhile, has his flaws that England should know all about. Belgium will be very difficult opponents, but they’re not as daunting as Spain or Germany would have been.
Overall, I can’t complain about the difficulty of the group. However, given that I expect our stay in Russia to be short, it would have been nice to have more glamorous opponents to look forward to. I can’t help but feel that England will become complacent and not produce their best football. Anything but convincing displays against Tunisia and Panama will have the media on their back.