Heroic Harry Kane breaks Tunisian hearts

This game had the potential to mark the beginning of a new era for the English national team. After years of constant disappointment, culminating in an embarrassing elimination from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland, this latest iteration of the Three Lions was coming in to the World Cup with little hype and plenty of talent. Nine of the players in their starting line-up to face Tunisia were making their World Cup debuts, and there was a feeling that this side, spearheaded by the remarkable Harry Kane, could usher in an exciting new time for English football. Then, on the pitch, Gareth Southgate’s youngsters dominated, but conceded a fortunate goal to their opponents and were only saved from the ignominy of a first-up draw by Kane’s heroic 91st minute winner. Have they changed? It’s not yet clear.

England began the game in ominous form, blowing Tunisia away in the early stages with their electrifying attacking play as the chances came thick and fast. Jordan Henderson’s long ball in behind found Dele Alli, whose dangerous cut back nearly found Raheem Sterling in a great position. Tunisia intercepted, but Alli picked the pocket of left-back Ali Maâloul in the penalty area and Jesse Lingard’s shot was only just blocked by Mouez Hassen. Hassen was called into action at the next corner, leaping desperately to deny Harry Maguire’s header, and shortly afterwards he was caught out when Lingard broke through the defence and found Sterling in front of an open goal. Somehow, the talented youngster missed. Meanwhile, Hassen lay on the ground, having injured his shoulder trying in vain to stop Lingard. Less than five minutes had elapsed.

Unsurprisingly, the goal soon followed, and it came from another poor piece of marking at a corner. Ashley Young swung it in, and this time it was John Stones who rose above the rest and headed towards the top corner, forcing Hassen into another incredible save. Unfortunately for him, the ball landed right onto the boot of Kane, who had absolutely no trouble finishing a straightforward chance from inside the six-yard box. For those looking for a new era, it was a very promising start. As England’s new captain wheeled away in celebration, it was hard to escape the feeling that Kane’s easy finish was the first of many goals to come.

Embed from Getty Images

English coach Gareth Southgate celebrates following his side’s dramatic victory. Southgate seemed fairly concerned during the second half, and he let his relief show when Kane gave England a late lead.

The next few minutes did little to contradict that theory. Hassen’s injury led to his removal shortly after Kane’s opener, and Farouk Ben Mustapha, the third-choice goalkeeper in the squad (Hassen was already playing over the unavailable Aymen Mathlouthi) was called into action. He was needed shortly afterwards to save Henderson’s volley, and as England continued to create chances Lingard missed a volley from close range and Maguire forced Ben Mustapha into another save after a strong header. England were creating all the chances, and were repelling anything Tunisia threw at them.

Then, disaster struck. Being England, a side with a chequered relationship with penalties, of course the goal came from a spot kick. Kyle Walker was the culprit, unnecessarily flinging out an arm as he defended Dylan Bronn’s cross and catching Fakhreddine Ben Youssef flush in the face. When Ben Youssef went down like a ton of bricks, Wilmar Roldán was quick to point to the spot. Taking the kick, Ferjani Sassi made no mistake, with Jordan Pickford getting a fingertip to the ball but not doing enough to prevent it from finding the back of the net.

England had more chances as they looked to retake the lead. A Kieran Trippier free-kick was headed down by Maguire, and when Alli beat Ben Mustapha to the follow-up effort it created a nervous moment for Syam Ben Youssef. The centre-back just cleared Alli’s header off the line, and both Sterling and Stones failed to connect properly as they sought to take advantage of Tunisia’s defensive disarray. Meanwhile, Kane was tackled by Sassi in the box, but Roldán missed the incident completely. Lingard had two more chances as the half drew to a close, with Bronn deflecting his excellent volley over the bar and a dangerous run allowing him to tap the ball over Ben Mustapha only for it to roll harmlessly into the post. On another day, England could have gone into half time ahead by three or four goals. Instead, they were tied.

Embed from Getty Images

Harry Kane (back) heads home England’s late winner. Kane scored two crucial goals, with his second breaking a deadlock that had existed for over half the game.

The second half started fairly slowly, with England largely dictating terms but not finding any real chances against the Tunisian defence. It didn’t matter too much, as the inaction only stretched for the first 10 minutes of the half while the English settled back in. Then it stretched on. The hour mark passed. Then 65 minutes. Suddenly, 75 minutes had elapsed and England hadn’t seriously threatened the Tunisian goal for around half an hour. Maguire and Walker were seemingly no longer playing as centre-backs, instead parking themselves in Tunisia’s half. Marcus Rashford was introduced in a desperate attempt to make something – anything – happen. All that they managed to create was a couple of free-kicks in potentially dangerous spots, both of which missed the target.

England were still dominating in the final few minutes, but Tunisia held firm. Maâloul frustrated Trippier by standing in front of the ball as the wing-back looked to move the ball on quickly. Wahbi Khazri left the game with five minutes to go, stopping just short of taking a lap of honour as he walked off the field while exchanging pleasantries from Roldán and detouring to accept the congratulations of his teammates. Ruben Loftus-Cheek came off the bench and made some things happen, but it looked like the match would end in despair despite all of England’s hard work. It felt like such a shame.

Then, just as it seemed like England would need to settle for a draw, the winner came. It was Kane, of course. Trippier’s ball into the box found Maguire and Syam Ben Youssef, and Maguire rose above the determined centre-back to head it towards the back post. Then, after 45 minutes of almost flawless defending, the Eagles of Carthage left England’s captain all alone, and in a perfect position just inside the six-yard box. He was never going to miss, and England could breathe a massive sigh of relief as they finally saw off a determined Tunisian challenge. It was a close run thing, but the new-look Three Lions came out with the win, and will only grow in confidence from here. Is it the start of a new era? We shall see.

Volgograd – Volgograd Arena
Tunisia 1 (Sassi 35 pen)
England 2 (Kane 11, 90+1)
Referee: Wilmar Roldán (Col)
Tunisia (4-3-3): Hassen (Ben Mustapha 15) – Bronn, S Ben Youssef, Meriah, Maâloul; Sassi, Skhiri, Badri; F Ben Youssef, Khazri (Khalifa 85), Sliti (Ben Amor 73).
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Alli (Loftus-Cheek 80), Henderson, Lingard (Dier 90+3), Young; Sterling (Rashford 68), Kane.

Embed from Getty Images

Jesse Lingard has an early shot at the Tunisian goal. Lingard was lively from the start, and was very unlucky not to find the back of the net.

Top 5
1. Jesse Lingard (England)
Lingard was full of energy, bursting through the Tunisian defensive line on a number of occasions and creating plenty of chances. He was unlucky not to find the back of the net during a dynamic first half performance, and his movement in transition created plenty of space for his teammates to work into.
2. Harry Kane (England)
Kane managed two poachers’ goals, and showed why he is such a dangerous goal-scorer in the process. He worked tirelessly all day, stepped up exactly when his team needed a hero, and positioned himself perfectly to get himself a brace on World Cup debut. If there was any doubt about his credentials before, he has erased it with a brilliant performance.
3. Syam Ben Youssef (Tunisia)
Ben Youssef had plenty of work to do against England’s dynamic attack, but he stayed composed and did very well to stave off some dangerous pieces of forward play. He was the only member of Tunisia’s back four who performed well in the first period, and he looked even more solid in the second half when his teammates started to pick up their efforts.
4. Kieran Trippier (England)
Trippier’s set piece delivery was brilliant, as was his energy and attacking presence down the right flank. He played a key hand in England’s injury time winner, and ensured they kept pushing right up to the final whistle with his desperation to get the ball moving quickly.
5. Jordan Henderson (England)
Henderson created plenty of chances with his dangerous diagonal balls in behind the Tunisian defence. As ever, he positioned himself well in holding midfield and allowed the English to thrive with his solidity. He occasionally threatened in attack, and could be a very handy part of the English side down the track.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group G

Group G

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Belgium (3), Panama (55), Tunisia (21), England (12)
Fixtures:
Belgium vs Panama, Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi
Tunisia vs England, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd
Belgium vs Tunisia, Otkritie Arena, Moscow
England vs Panama, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
England vs Belgium, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
Panama vs Tunisia, Mordovia Arena, Saransk

Belgium

Head Coach: Roberto Martínez
Captain: Eden Hazard
Previous Appearances: 12 (1930, 1934, 1938, 1954, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2014)
Best Finish: Fourth Place (1986)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group H
Qualification Top Scorer: Romelu Lukaku (11)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), 12. Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), 13. Koen Casteels (Wolfsburg).
Defenders: 2. Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur), 3. Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), 4. Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), 5. Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur), 15. Thomas Meunier (Paris Saint-Germain), 20. Dedryck Boyata (Celtic).
Midfielders: 6. Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian), 7. Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City), 8. Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), 11. Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang), 16. Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 17. Youri Tielemans (Monaco), 19. Mousa Dembélé (Tottenham Hotspur), 22. Nacer Chadli (West Bromwich Albion), 23. Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht).
Forwards: 9. Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United), 10. Eden Hazard (Chelsea), 14. Dries Mertens (Napoli), 18. Anton Januzaj (Real Sociedad), 21. Michy Batshuayi (Borussia Dortmund).

Belgium coasted through a simple qualifying group effortlessly, barely breaking a sweat as they progressed with nine wins and a draw. Belgium’s current side, made up of their “golden generation”, is the strongest they’ve ever fielded, with plenty of quality players in every position. Thibaut Courtois is a star goalkeeper, and Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen form a very solid defence. Midfield enforcers Axel Witsel, Mousa Dembélé, Marouane Fellaini and Leander Dendoncker will support a devastating attack that scored 43 goals in qualifying. Romelu Lukaku leads the line, and the powerful striker will receive service from three of Europe’s best in Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens. De Bruyne is arguably the best playmaker in world football, and in conjunction with the silky skills of Hazard and Mertens he could wreak havoc at the World Cup. With Thomas Meunier and Yannick Carrasco providing some quality width and plenty of depth in the squad, Belgium could be a legitimate contender. If they put it all together, they will be formidable.

Embed from Getty Images

Romelu Lukaku (centre) fights for the ball during a qualifier against Greece. Lukaku was Belgium’s top-scorer in qualifying, and he will shoulder most of the scoring burden in Russia.

Despite their undisputed quality, the Belgians haven’t quite put it together in their most recent major tournaments, with quarter-final exits at the World Cup and the Euros a pair of disappointing results for such a talented team. New coach Roberto Martínez brings plenty of tactical nous, but questions remain about whether the players can stand up when required. Defence could be a problem for Belgium, especially with an injury to Kompany which jeopardises the former captain’s participation. The lack of a genuine left-back is also a concern, and although Martínez’s switch to a three-man defence counters that it also means Carrasco, a natural attacker, will have to play a fairly big defensive role. The non-selection of high-octane, high-impact midfielder Radja Nainggolan caused plenty of outrage in Belgium, even if only 23 people showed up to protest it (out of 9000 expected to attend). The distractions caused by this, and the impact of the loss of Nainggolan, could prove costly.

Star Player: Kevin de Bruyne

De Bruyne has always been a classy playmaker, but his work with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City has taken his game to another level. Now sitting deeper in midfield, his incredible vision and his ability to pick out an incisive pass led to a tally of 16 Premier League assists, with many more chances created. If he can work well with Hazard, Mertens and Lukaku it will cause massive headaches for opposing defences.

Embed from Getty Images

Kevin de Bruyne runs with the ball during Belgium’s Euro 2016 quarter-final against Wales. De Bruyne is a classy playmaker, and he has become one of the world’s best midfielders.

Key Player: Jan Vertonghen

In the last few years, Vertonghen and Alderweireld have formed a brilliant defensive partnership with Tottenham Hotspur, and the Belgians will be hoping this carries on in Russia. Vertonghen is versatile and a solid defender, and with Alderweireld missing a large chunk of the season with injuries he stepped up in a big way to lead the Spurs defence. Belgium will be looking for similar defensive steel on the vulnerable left side of defence.

One to watch: Leander Dendoncker

Dendoncker is one of the newest members of the Belgian squad, and the talented youngster could come in handy at the World Cup. He can play in both midfield and defence, and his height and strength will serve him well wherever he is required to slot in. His form with Anderlecht has been excellent, and he could make an impact if given a chance.

Verdict

The Belgians are talented and have plenty of depth, and if they reach their potential they could be good enough to win it all. They won’t face too much early competition, and they will be a formidable opponent.
Likely Team (3-4-2-1): Courtois; Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, Witsel, de Bruyne, Carrasco; Hazard, Mertens; Lukaku.

Panama

Head Coach: Hernán Dário Gómez
Captain: Felipe Baloy
Previous Appearances: None
Best Finish: N/A
Qualified: CONCACAF, 3rd
Qualification Top Scorer: Gabriel Torres (3)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Jaime Penedo (Dinamo Bucureşti), 12. José Calderón (Chorrillo), 22. Álex Rodríguez (San Francisco).
Defenders: 2. Michael Amir Murillo (New York Red Bulls), 3. Harold Cummings (San Jose Earthquakes), 4. Fidel Escobar (New York Red Bulls), 5. Román Torres (Seattle Sounders), 13. Adolfo Machado (Houston Dynamo), 15. Erick Davis (Dunajská Streda), 17. Luis Ovalle (Olimpia), 23. Felipe Baloy (Municipal).
Midfielders: 6. Gabriel Gómez (Atlético Bucaramanga), 8. Édgar Bárcenas (Tapachula), 11. Armando Cooper (Universidad de Chile), 14. Valentin Pimentel (Plaza Amador), 19. Ricardo Ávila (Gent), 20. Aníbal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes), 21. José Luis Rodríguez (Gent).
Forwards: 7. Blas Pérez (Municipal), 9. Gabriel Torres (Huachipato), 10. Ismael Díaz (Deportivo Fabril), 16. Abdiel Arroyo (Alajuelense), 18. Luis Tejada (Sport Boys).

Embed from Getty Images

Panama’s players and fans celebrate their World Cup qualification, which came on the back of Román Torres’ late winner. Panama had never made it to the tournament before their momentous win over Costa Rica.

Panama qualified for their first ever World Cup on the back of a bit of luck, some good results and a healthy dose of controversy. The equaliser scored by Blas Pérez in their crucial match against Honduras didn’t actually cross the line, but in the absence of video technology the “phantom goal” was allowed to stand before Román Torres stepped up to hand Panama the win. Now they’ve made it, Panama will be looking to show they’re not just making up the numbers, and they have some experienced heads within their team. Goalkeeper Jaime Penedo brings plenty of experience from a 15-year international career, while Román Torres and Felipe Baloy lead an experienced defence. In the middle, Gabriel Gómez and Aníbal Godoy form a strong partnership, with Gómez especially skilled at controlling the tempo of the game. Up front, the experience of Pérez, Gabriel Torres and Luis Tejada and the flair of Abdiel Arroyo, Ismael Díaz and José Luis Rodríguez Los Canaleros could present a challenge for opposing defences.

For all that, Panama will still struggle to make it through against opponents who are much more skilled and have more experience of high-level competition. Barely any of Panama’s squad members play their club football in Europe, with most playing in the lower-level leagues of Central America. The World Cup will be a massive jump in terms of the quality of their opponents, and their first match against Belgium could be a reality check for Hernán Dário Gómez’s side. Panama will come to the World Cup with one of the older sides at the tournament, and many of their key players are well into their thirties and past their prime. Meanwhile, their younger players are coming in with little to no experience of top-level competition, and they may find it tough to adjust to the pressure of the World Cup. The loss of Alberto Quintero to injury is also a blow, as the experienced attacking midfielder is one of their most important players going forward. With no World Cup experience, Panama’s players are facing a baptism of fire, and it’s not clear who will stand up.

Star Player: Román Torres

Torres is a centre-back, but he will forever be known as a hero of Panamanian football for his exploits in attack. It was the experienced defender who scored the late winner that sent Los Canaleros through to Russia, sending all of Panama into raucous celebrations. At the World Cup he will provide his side with solid defence and strong leadership, as well as a handy goal threat at set pieces.

Embed from Getty Images

Gabriel Gómez attempts to control the ball during a 2017 Copa América match with Argentina. Gómez is a quality midfielder who controls the tempo of the game and is a key part of Panama’s team.

Key Player: Gabriel Gómez

Gómez is the conductor of Panama’s team, controlling the game from central midfield and setting up their attacking play while shielding the defence. He works hard, and with over 140 caps at international level he knows how to read the game and set the tone for his side. Gómez’s ability to manage the game from the centre of the park could determine Panama’s success in Russia.

One to watch: José Luis Rodríguez

Rodríguez comes into this World Cup with almost no experience at either club or international level. He has been playing with Belgian side Gent’s second team, and the opponents he will face in Russia are a massive step up from anything he has faced before. He is Panama’s wildcard pick, and if given the opportunity he could make a name for himself.

Verdict

In terms of quality, Panama are nowhere near their competition. They have no players playing in top European leagues, and they are thoroughly outmatched by their opposition in Russia. There’s always room for a fairytale, but such a fairytale seems particularly unlikely for Los Canaleros.
Likely Team (4-4-2): Penedo; Machado, Baloy, R Torres, Ovalle; Cooper, Gómez, Godoy, Bárcenas; Pérez, G Torres.

Tunisia

Head Coach: Nabil Maâloul
Captain: Aymen Mathlouthi
Previous Appearances: 4 (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006)
Best Finish: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006)
Qualified: CAF, 1st Group A
Qualification Top Scorer: Youssef Msakni (3)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Farouk Ben-Mustapha (Al-Shabab), 16. Aymen Mathlouthi (Al-Batin), 22. Mouez Hassen (Châteauroux).
Defenders: 2. Syam Ben Youssef (Kasımpaşa), 3. Yohan Benalouane (Leicester City), 4. Yassine Meriah (CS Sfaxien), 5. Oussama Haddadi (Dijon), 6. Rami Bedoui (Étoile du Sahel), 11. Dylan Bronn (Gent), 12. Ali Maâloul (Al Ahly), 21. Hamdi Nagguez (Zamalek).
Midfielders: 7. Saîf-Eddine Khaoui (Troyes), 13. Ferjani Sassi (Al-Nassr), 14. Mohamed Amine Ben Amor (Al-Ahli), 17. Ellyes Skhiri (Montpellier), 20. Ghailene Chaalali (Espérance).
Forwards: 8. Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (Al-Ettifaq), 9. Anice Badri (Espérance), 10. Wahbi Khazri (Rennes), 15. Ahmed Khalil (Club Africain), 18. Bassem Srarfi (Nice), 19. Saber Khalifa (Club Africain), 23. Naïm Sliti (Dijon).

Tunisia were the beneficiaries of a fairly soft qualifying group, but it still took until the final day for Nabil Maâloul’s side to seal their spot. Drawn into a difficult group with two tough opponents, Tunisia won’t be favourites to progress, but they have some quality players and could pose a challenge. Wahbi Khazri, Anice Badri, Naïm Sliti and Fakhreddine Ben Youssef form an attack that will be a threat, and Nice young gun Bassem Srarfi could have a big impact coming off the bench. Ghailene Chaalali, Ellyes Skhiri and Ferjani Sassi are all good creators in the middle, and the recovery of defensive midfielder Mohamed Amine Ben Amor is a welcome boost. Down back, Yassine Meriah and Syam Ben Youssef are a strong central defensive pairing, and full-backs Dylan Bronn and Ali Maâloul are both capable players in defence and attack (left-back Maâloul was once the top scorer in the Tunisian league). The Eagles of Carthage are a solid side, and cannot be underestimated.

Embed from Getty Images

Mohamed Amine Ben Amor (left) battles with an opponent during an Africa Cup of Nations clash with Algeria. Ben Amor has recovered from injury in time to play a key midfield role for the Eagles of Carthage.

Unfortunately for them, a combination of an unpleasant draw and injuries to key players means their tournament may not last long. Chaalali, Ben Amor and Khazri have all recovered in time for the World Cup, but they may come in underdone. Even worse, qualification top scorer Youssef Msakni and striker Taha Yassine Khenissi will miss the tournament with their injuries, creating more pressure for Khazri and the rest of the attack. The team’s lack of quality could also come back to bite them. Many of their players have been playing in lower-tier French leagues or other lower-quality competitions, and apart from Khazri very few regularly play against the best in the world. The squad contains 15 players with under 20 international caps, and only captain Aymen Mathlouthi has over 50. This lack of experience at international level, partially borne from the fact that some players have only joined the team since their qualification, could be costly against strong opponents like Belgium and England. If Tunisia want to beat the odds and go through, they will need to fix these problems quickly.

Star Player: Wahbi Khazri

Khazri is Tunisia’s main playmaker, and his skill with the ball at his feet ensures he will be a valuable part of their attack. He is a threat in open play and from set pieces, and he has played himself into form over the course of a strong season with Ligue 1 side Rennes. He comes into the tournament under an injury cloud, but if he hits his best form the Eagles of Carthage will be a dangerous side.

Embed from Getty Images

Wahbi Khazri moves forward with the ball during an Africa Cup of Nations match with Senegal. Khazri is the star of Tunisia’s team, and could have an impact in Russia with his skills.

Key Player: Ghailene Chaalali

Chaalali has only been capped six times for Tunisia, but the 24-year-old has already established himself as a key cog in Nabil Maâloul’s midfield with his ability to create chances and defend solidly. The World Cup is his chance to shine on the big stage, and Tunisia will be relying on him to contribute well in both defence and attack. If he plays well, things will be a lot easier for the Tunisians.

One to watch: Bassem Srarfi

Srarfi is the youngest member of Tunisia’s squad, but he could be one of their most dangerous players. He has been an effective player off the bench for Nice, and the 20-year-old has the pace and skill to be a very potent weapon for the Eagles of Carthage. He is not likely to start, but he will be very exciting coming off the bench late in games.

Verdict

Tunisia have had some unhelpful injuries which could impact their efforts in Russia, and they will struggle to progress from a tough group. They have some skilled players, but it may not be enough.
Likely Team (4-3-3): Mathlouthi; Bronn, Meriah, S Ben Youssef, Maâloul; Sassi, Ben Amor, Chaalali; Badri, Khazri, Sliti.

England

Head Coach: Gareth Southgate
Captain: Harry Kane
Previous Appearances: 14 (1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (1966)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group G
Qualification Top Scorer: Harry Kane (5)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Jordan Pickford (Everton), 13. Jack Butland (Stoke City), 23. Nick Pope (Burnley).
Defenders: 2. Kyle Walker (Manchester City), 3. Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur), 5. John Stones (Manchester City), 6. Harry Maguire (Leicester City), 12. Kieran Trippier (Tottenham Hotspur), 15. Gary Cahill (Chelsea), 16. Phil Jones (Manchester United), 17. Fabian Delph (Manchester City), 18. Ashley Young (Manchester United), 22. Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool).
Midfielders: 4. Eric Dier (Tottenham Hotspur), 7. Jesse Lingard (Manchester United), 8. Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), 20. Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur), 21. Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Crystal Palace).
Forwards: 9. Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), 10. Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), 11. Jamie Vardy (Leicester City), 14. Danny Welbeck (Arsenal), 19. Marcus Rashford (Manchester United).

Despite England’s straightforward qualification, the British press has not begun their traditional singing of the Three Lions’ praises before the World Cup. Maybe they were put off by England’s embarrassing elimination from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland, or realised that none of their hubristic predictions, dating back to England’s actual World Cup victory in 1966, had ever come good. Either way, the lack of fanfare could be a blessing in disguise for Gareth Southgate’s team, who do have some quality players. Harry Kane is one of the world’s best strikers, and his combination with excitement machines Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard could be very tough to stop. Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson form an effective shield for the defence with their solid midfield play, and Southgate has an abundance of attacking full-backs who can provide width and quality. A back three of Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire could be very hard to break down, and all three are quality ball players who can contribute to the attack.

Embed from Getty Images

Raheem Sterling takes on the defence during a qualifying match against Lithuania. Sterling has immense talent, but he has never found his best form in an English shirt.

They may look solid, but the English will have some issues to deal with if they want to get past the round of 16 and make real inroads at the tournament. Most significantly, they don’t have a goalkeeper. Jordan Pickford will start, but neither he nor his back-up, Jack Butland, have enjoyed brilliant seasons in the Premier League, and the squad’s three keepers have just 12 international caps between them. This inexperience is an issue throughout the squad, with non-starter Gary Cahill the only player with over 50 caps in the 23. Southgate will also need to deal with Sterling, who has attracted plenty of controversy in the lead-up and has not been able to find his devastating Manchester City form when pulling on an English shirt. There is uncertainty as to who is in England’s best team, something Southgate will need to work out. The Three Lions are still likely to progress from a relatively easy group, but these issues could hurt them in the knockouts.

Star Player: Harry Kane

Kane has developed into one of the most dangerous strikers in the world, and his tally of 105 goals in the last four Premier League seasons is a testament to his consistency. He is tall, strong and has excellent skills, and he is the kind of all-round striker England can rely on in Russia. He was appointed captain based on his brilliant performances for club and country, and if that form is on display he will be a force to be reckoned with.

Embed from Getty Images

Harry Kane celebrates after scoring in qualifying against Slovenia. Kane has been named captain for the World Cup, and he will have a chance to showcase his excellent goal-scoring ability.

Key Player: Jordan Henderson

Henderson is coming off a successful season with Liverpool, where he led the club to the final of the Champions League and played a typically influential role in central midfield. He is surrounded by more talented players, but his hard work and willingness to focus on his defensive duties allows him to hold England’s midfield together. If they are going to succeed, they will need him to play well.

One to watch: Trent Alexander-Arnold

Alexander-Arnold is just 19, but he comes into the World Cup in good form and he could make an impact if given the opportunity. Having received his chance at Liverpool after first-choice right-back Nathaniel Clyne went down injured, Alexander-Arnold showed impressive defensive skills and an ability to contribute to attacks with his excellent crosses. He is a set-piece specialist, and with his skillset he could fit in well as one of Southgate’s wing-backs.

Verdict

The English should progress from a relatively simple group, even though they have been known to bomb out spectacularly in the past. In the knockouts, however, it won’t be so straightforward, and their inexperience could come to the fore.
Likely Team (3-4-1-2): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Henderson, Alli, Rose; Lingard; Sterling, Kane.

Prediction

This group seems open-and-shut, but the English have been prone to disappointment and a failure to progress is not out of the question. Belgium’s golden generation should breeze through, and the English, despite their recent history, are good enough to join them. Against Panama and Tunisia, neither of whom come close to their opponents in terms of quality, the two big sides shouldn’t have too many problems, but their clash should be intriguing and could be important in the wider tournament. Tunisia and Panama can’t necessarily be ruled out of contention, and if either side’s defence holds together they could cause a massive upset, but the unfortunate reality for both is that their most meaningful clash is likely to be a consolation game against each other.
1. Belgium, 2. England, 3. Tunisia, 4. Panama

2016-17 Premier League Preview – The Europa League Challengers

As the Premier League gets closer, I am continuing my look at the teams in the English top flight by assessing the teams who will be looking for spots in European competitions come the end of the season. Enjoy.

Everton

Manager: Ronald Koeman
Captain: Phil Jagielka
Ground: Goodison Park
Last Season: 11th
Top Scorer: Romelu Lukaku (18)
Most Assists: Ross Barkley, Gerard Deulofeu (8)
Prediction: 11th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Joel Robles, 22. Maarten Stekelenburg.
Defenders: 3. Leighton Baines, 5. John Stones, 6. Phil Jagielka, 8. Bryan Oviedo, 23. Seamus Coleman, 25. Ramiro Funes Mori, 26. Matthew Pennington, 27. Tyias Browning, 29. Luke Garbutt, 30. Mason Holgate, 32. Brendan Galloway.
Midfielders: 4. Darron Gibson, 7. Aiden McGeady, 11. Kevin Mirallas, 12. Aaron Lennon, 15. Tom Cleverley, 16. James McCarthy, 18. Gareth Barry, 19. Gerard Deulofeu, 20. Ross Barkley, 21. Muhamed Besic, 31. Kieran Dowell, 34. Tom Davies.
Forwards: 9. Arouna Kone, 10. Romelu Lukaku, 14. Oumar Niasse, 24. Shani Tarashaj, 35. Conor McAleny.

Everton were disappointing last season, with Roberto Martinez making way after a run of bad results left them in the bottom half of the table. Ronald Koeman has moved from Southampton to manage the team, and the former Dutch international has already added Maarten Stekelenburg to replace the departed Tim Howard in goal. The new boss is yet to sign an outfield player, but Everton still have quality all over the park. Romelu Lukaku (pictured) is one of the best strikers in the Premier League, and Ross Barkley will ensure that he gets excellent supply. John Stones and Phil Jaigielka form an excellent combination in the centre of defence, and they are well backed-up by Ramiro Funes Mori. Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines are both fullbacks who provide plenty of attacking support, and they will cause big problems for opposition defences.

Embed from Getty Images

Everton have some excellent players, but they are very dependent on Lukaku for goals. The Belgian striker scored nearly a third of the team’s goals last campaign, with no other player scoring more than eight. Chelsea are very interested in bringing him back to Stamford Bridge, and this could leave Everton with a massive hole and not much time to fill it. Even if he stays the 23 year-old will be under immense pressure to perform, as will 22 year-old playmaker Barkley. Both players are still very young, and the burden of holding up Everton’s attack could prove too much for them. Everton were very disappointing last season, but Koeman has not made any moves to improve the squad. He will need to make some changes fast, or Everton could slip back to the same lows as last season. Overall, the Toffees are a fairly strong side and could challenge for the Europa League under the right guidance, but there are some issues which need to be resolved before this can happen.

Star Player: Romelu Lukaku

Lukaku led the Belgian Pro League for scoring at just 17, and he has only improved since then. He was signed by Everton in 2014 after a successful loan spell yielded 15 goals, and he has become the focal point of their attack. He managed 18 goals last season despite the side’s poor performance, and he could take them very far if he is on his game.

Key Player: Ross Barkley

Barkley has developed into one of the best playmakers in the Premier League, and he has drawn comparisons with Michel Ballack and Paul Gascoigne due to his pace and technical ability. He is Everton’s main creator, and he will be relied upon to provide plenty of chances for Lukaku. If he fails to fire then it will be very difficult for Everton to score, and they will struggle as a result.

One to watch: Gerard Deulofeu

Deulofeu is a product of the Barcelona academy, and he was sold by the Catalan giants after an unsuccessful loan spell at Sevilla. He is not a prolific scorer, but he is a dangerous presence on the wing and can ease some of the pressure on Barkley with his ability to create chances. He has enormous potential, and he should benefit from increased first-team action this season.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Stekelenburg – Coleman, Stones, Jagielka, Baines; McCarthy, Barry; Lennon, Barkley, Deulofeu; Lukaku.

Liverpool

Manager: Jurgen Klopp
Captain: Jordan Henderson
Ground: Anfield
Last Season: 8th
Top Scorer: Roberto Firmino (10)
Most Assists: James Milner (11)
Prediction: 7th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Loris Karius, 13. Alex Manninger, 22. Simon Mignolet.
Defenders: 2. Nathaniel Clyne, 3. Mamadou Sakho, 6. Dejan Lovren, 12. Joe Gomez, 17. Ragnar Klavan, 18. Alberto Moreno, 26. Tiago Ilori, 32. Joel Matip, 38. Jon Flanagan, 47. Andre Wisdom, 56. Connor Randall.
Midfielders: 5. Georginio Wijnaldum, 7. James Milner, 10. Philippe Coutinho, 14. Jordan Henderson, 16. Marko Grujic, 20. Adam Lallana, 21. Lucas Leiva, 23. Emre Can, 25. Cameron Brannagan, 35. Kevin Stewart, 50. Lazar Markovic, 54. Sheyi Ojo, 68. Pedro Chirivella, Luis Alberto, Allan.
Forwards: 9. Christian Benteke, 11. Roberto Firmino, 15. Daniel Sturridge, 19. Sadio Mane, 27. Divock Origi, 28. Danny Ings, 45. Mario Balotelli, Taiwo Awoniyi.

Liverpool have been very active over the off-season, bringing in Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum to bolster the attack and adding Ragnar Klavan, Joel Matip and Loris Karius in an effort to improve the defence. Jurgen Klopp has no shortage of options all over the park, and he will be aided by the versatility of Mane, Philippe Coutinho (pictured) and Roberto Firmino. Wijnaldum is likely to drop deeper than he did at Newcastle, and the Dutchman will form an excellent combination with Emre Can and Jordan Henderson in the centre of the park. Karius should replace Simon Mignolet in goal after showing excellent form at Mainz, and Matip and Klavan look set to form a solid combination in the heart of the defence. Daniel Sturridge, Christian Benteke, Divock Origi and Danny Ings are all quality players who will be pushing for a start in attack, and there is sure to be plenty of competition for spots throughout the season.

Embed from Getty Images

Klopp has been very smart in the transfer market, but the same cannot be said of his predecessors and he has inherited a squad with too many expensive flops. There has been a lack of continuity over past seasons, with the large number of strikers signed from other clubs in the last couple of years often taking time on the pitch away from each other. As it stands, none of them are playing well enough to command a place in the first team, and Klopp may decide to use Coutinho up front instead. There is a general lack of depth on either side of the defence, and while Nathaniel Clyne is a top level right back the same cannot be said of left back Alberto Moreno. Moreno is currently in the first team by virtue of being the only option, and if no other left back is added then Liverpool could experience some serious issues. Liverpool are likely to contend for a spot in European competitions, but they are not good enough to contend for the title.

Star Player: Philippe Coutinho

Coutinho’s career has taken off since joining Liverpool from Internazionale in 2013, and the Brazilian has firmly established himself as one of the Premier League’s most dangerous playmakers. He is skilled and pacey, and he is sure to provide plenty of problems for defenders over the course of the season.

Key Player: Jordan Henderson

Henderson has progressed quickly, and at 26 he is already coming into his second season as Liverpool captain. He will be a constant presence for the Reds this season, and they will need him to be in top form throughout. He will function as the side’s main link between defence and attack, and he will need to move well through the middle of the park.

One to watch: Loris Karius

Karius was one of the best goalkeepers in the Bundesliga last season, keeping nine clean sheets and saving two penalties. He has been brought in from Mainz to replace Mignolet, and the former Manchester City reject now has a chance to perform on the big stage. He is an excellent player, and has the potential to serve Liverpool well for a long time.

Likely team (4-3-3): Karius – Clyne, Matip, Klavan, Moreno; Can, Henderson, Wijnaldum; Mane, Coutinho, Firmino.

Southampton

Manager: Claude Puel
Captain: Jose Fonte
Ground: St Mary’s Stadium
Last Season: 6th
Top Scorer: Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle (11)
Most Assists: Dusan Tadic (12)
Prediction: 8th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 44. Fraser Forster.
Defenders: 2. Cedric Soares, 3. Maya Yoshida, 5. Florin Gardos, 6. Jose Fonte, 15. Cuco Martina, 17. Virgil van Dijk, 21. Ryan Bertrand, 33. Matt Targett.
Midfielders: 4. Jordy Clasie, 8. Steven Davis, 11. Dusan Tadic, 14. Oriol Romeu, 16. James Ward-Prowse, 18. Harrison Reed, 27. Lloyd Isgrove, Nathan Redmond, Pierre-Emile Hojberg.
Forwards: 7. Shane Long, 9. Jay Rodriguez, 28. Charlie Austin.

Southampton have turned plenty of heads since they won promotion to the Premier League in 2012, and in 2015-16 they recorded their best finish since their return to the top flight. Ronald Koeman has departed for Everton after two successful seasons as manager, and the Saints have recruited Claude Puel from Nice as his replacement. Puel has inherited an excellent side, and new signings Nathan Redmond and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg will provide a massive boost to a midfield containing Steven Davis, James Ward-Prowse, Jordy Clasie and Dusan Tadic (pictured). Fraser Forster is a solid presence in goal, and he will receive excellent support from the defence of Jose Fonte, Cedric Soares, Ryan Bertrand and Virgil van Dijk. Shane Long is an excellent option up front, and Charlie Austin and Jay Rodriguez are likely to see more first team action this season after the departures of Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane.

Embed from Getty Images

Southampton have long relied on the transfer strategy of selling off their best players for a massive profit, and while it has not adversely affected the side in the past the losses of Pelle and Mane will make things very difficult. Redmond can fill Mane’s spot on the right wing, but he will not necessarily be able to provide the same level of performance as the Senegalese star. Long will lead the attack in Pelle’s absence, but it is unclear who will partner him up front. Rodriguez has only played eight times in the last two seasons, and Austin was unable to take his performances with him when he moved to the Saints from QPR. Southampton have lost a key midfield player in Victor Wanyama, and the Kenyan will be difficult to replace. These issues will make life difficult for Southampton, but Puel has had plenty of success before and can take them a long way.

Star Player: Dusan Tadic

Tadic is very fast and incredibly skilful, and the Serbian winger will be relied upon to provide consistent delivery for the strikers. He was not able to find that consistency under Koeman, but his talent is undeniable and he is sure to bounce back under a new manager. He has become one of Southampton’s most important players, and he will need to use all of his skill if they are to succeed.

Key Player: Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg

Wanyama’s departure has left a big void in the Southampton midfield, and new signing Hojbjerg will be expected to fill it. He has plenty of potential, and after successful loan spells with Augsburg and Schalke he has moved to the Premier League from Bayern Munich. He may take some time to adjust to his new surroundings, but he is an excellent player and Southampton will need him to step up.

One to watch: James Ward-Prowse

Ward-Prowse is a product of Southampton’s brilliant academy system, and he is sure to feature heavily for the Saints this season. He already has plenty of first team experience with the Saints, and he is likely to provide plenty of opportunities for the forwards with his pace and skill. He is still developing, and has the potential to become one of the best players in the Premier League.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Forster – Cedric, van Dijk, Fonte, Bertrand; Hojbjerg, Clasie; Redmond, Ward-Prowse, Tadic; Long.

West Ham United

Manager: Slaven Bilic
Captain: Mark Noble
Ground: Boleyn Ground
Last Season: 7th
Top Scorer: Andy Carroll, Dimitri Payet (9)
Most Assists: Dimitri Payet (12)
Prediction: 10th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Darren Randolph, 13. Adrian, 34. Raphael Spiegel.
Defenders: 2. Winston Reid, 3. Aaron Cresswell, 19. James Collins, 21. Angelo Ogbonna, 22. Sam Byram, 25. Doneil Henry, 32. Reece Burke, 37. Lewis Page.
Midfielders: 4. Havard Nordtveit, 7. Sofiane Feghouli, 8. Cheikhou Kouyate, 14. Pedro Obiang, 16. Mark Noble, 17. Gokhan Tore, 23. Diego Poyet, 27. Dimitri Payet, 28. Manuel Lanzini, 30. Michail Antonio, 35. Reece Oxford, 39. Josh Cullen, 42. Martin Samuelson.
Forwards: 9. Andy Carroll, 11. Enner Valencia, 15. Diafra Sakho, 24. Ashley Fletcher.

Slaven Bilic’s first season at West Ham United was a massive success, with the Croatian manager taking them within striking distance of the Champions League. They have not been particularly active in the transfer market, but they have not lost many players either and they are in strong form heading into the season. Dimitri Payet (pictured) starred at Euro 2016, and the versatile French international will be looking to continue his incredible form throughout this campaign. He will provide excellent service to the likes of Andy Carroll, Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia, and he will be well backed up by Michail Antonio and Sofiane Feghouli. Angelo Ogbonna and Winston Reid will anchor a solid defence and provide plenty of support for Adrian in goal. Mark Noble and Cheikhou Kouyate are steadying presences in midfield, and the former will be looking to build on the excellent form he showed last season.

Embed from Getty Images

West Ham are a fairly solid side, but there are some problems which they have to deal with. Carroll, Valencia and Sakho are all decent options, but Bilic is still in need of a top-quality striker. Further issues exist down back, where the squad is lacking defensive depth. Central defender James Collins is currently the Hammers’ best option at right back after the end of Carl Jenkinson’s loan spell, and there is no real cover for Reid and Ogbonna should either player suffer an injury. There is a general lack of depth which exists throughout the squad, and West Ham may struggle as a result. They are a strong side and could go a long way this season, but they are not good enough to keep up with the big clubs and are unlikely to perform as well as they did last campaign.

Star Player: Dimitri Payet

Payet was brilliant in the Premier League last season, and the versatile French midfielder backed it up with his performances at Euro 2016. He starred as France made it to the final of their home tournament, and this season he will be looking to cause plenty of problems for defenders with his pace, skill and ability to put the ball into dangerous positions. He is a class act, and can take West Ham to the next level.

Key Player: Angelo Ogbonna

Ogbonna was a strong presence at the back for West Ham last season, and he will be needed more than ever this time around. He will marshal the defence, and he will need to stay on the park given the lack of depth that exists down back. The defence is seriously undermanned, and he will need to step up if the Hammers are to perform as well as they did last campaign.

One to watch: Reece Oxford

Oxford became the second youngest player to start in a Premier League game last season when he took the field in West Ham’s opening match against Arsenal. He is still only 17, and he is sure to get more of a chance this campaign. He has shown glimpses of his ability to perform at the highest level, and he could be the future of English football.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Adrian – Collins, Reid, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Kouyate, Noble; Feghouli, Payet, Antonio; Carroll.

England confined to second place after frustrating draw

England have drawn 0-0 with Slovakia in Saint-Etienne, setting up a potential quarter-final with the French at the Stade de France. The English dominated possession and territory and had plenty of excellent chances, but in the end the Slovak defence held firm and kept out Roy Hodgson’s men until the final whistle. Hodgson made six changes to the side that beat the Welsh in England’s second game, and the English had a strong early chance when Jamie Vardy’s flick on header nearly found Daniel Sturridge in an excellent scoring position. Peter Pekarik was able to get to the ball, and Matus Kovacik was able to get both hands on the rebound. Vardy had one of the best chances of the game minutes later, as the English striker was able to outrun Martin Skrtel and found himself one-on-one with Kovacik. The Slovak keeper held firm, however, and he made a strong save to keep England at bay again. The combination of Nathaniel Clyne and Jordan Henderson on the right edge was causing massive problems for Slovakia and creating plenty of chances, but the teams were still level at the break.

The second half began much the same as the first, and while a defensive error from Chris Smalling could have led to a Slovakian goal the English were still on top. Slovakia were finding more chances, however, and Vladimir Weiss came close when he found the ball in space inside the area. His shot had to be saved by Joe Hart, and it looked as if Slovakia could pose a fair challenge. Then the game was turned on its head. Henderson made a nice run down the right wing, and his ball travelled well across goal, past most of Slovakia’s defence and the English attack. Dele Alli had been on the field for seconds, but he found the ball and was in an excellent position to break the deadlock with no keeper to beat. The shot was taken exquisitely, and it was placed with precision, but Skrtel had reacted and flicked the ball over the bar with the outstep of his left foot. It was an incredible piece of defensive work, and the close call changed Slovakia’s outlook. Dusan Svento had already entered the game, and he was soon joined by two more defenders in Norbert Gyomber and Milan Skriniar. England had shot after shot, but they could not trouble Kozacik with enough of their attempts.

They kept pushing. Sturridge was unable to get his foot to a long ball over the defence from midfield, and Kozacik stretched to claim the bouncing ball. They kept pushing. Gary Cahill attempted to find Harry Kane over the top with a header, but he could not get on to it. They kept pushing. Henderson found Kane inside the box, but the header went wide. They kept pushing, but it wasn’t going to be enough as Slovakia held firm to keep the score at 0-0. The draw confined England to second place after Wales won 3-0 in Toulouse, and they need to look very hard to find some more goals. They play again in a week’s time, so those answers will need to come fast.

Saint-Etienne – Stade Geoffroy-Guichard
Slovakia 0
England 0
Referee: Carlos Vellasco Carballo (Esp)

England (4-3-3): Hart – Clyne, Cahill, Smalling, Bertrand; Henderson, Dier, Wilshere (Rooney 56); Lallana (Alli 61), Vardy, Sturridge (Kane 76).
Slovakia (4-3-3): Kozacik – Pekarik, Skrtel, Durica, Hubocan; Kucka, Pecovsky (Gyomber 67), Hamsik; Mak, Duda (Svento 57), Weiss (Skriniar 78).

Top 5
1. Jordan Henderson (England)
Henderson was one of six changes made by Roy Hodgson, and he was very dangerous on the right wing. He created plenty of opportunities with some excellently placed crosses, and the work that he did on the right side of midfield provided the best chances of the game. He combined exceptionally well with Clyne, and will be seriously considered for the knockout stages.
2. Nathaniel Clyne (England)
Clyne dropped off slightly in the second half, but he made a great contribution throughout and created plenty of scoring opportunities with his overlapping runs from right back. He put in some good crosses and even found himself one-on-one with Kozacik, but he was unable to get England the goal they needed. He played well, and should provide good competition for Kyle Walker.
3. Matus Kozacik (Slovakia)
Kozacik had an excellent game in goal, getting into good positions and making some great saves. He beat both Vardy and Clyne one-on-one due to excellent positioning, and he was able to come off his line well to claim the ball on multiple occasions. He had a strong game, and was the main reason that Slovakia were able to keep the game at 0-0.
4. Jamie Vardy (England)
Vardy was picked in the starting line-up after a strong second half performance against Wales, and he picked up where he left off against Slovakia. He created plenty of chances with his pace and his ability to get in behind the defence, and he was a serious threat for the Slovakians. He showed his pace early when he beat Skrtel to the ball in a dangerous position, and he played a strong game.
5. Martin Skrtel (Slovakia)
Skrtel was a rock at the centre of the Slovakian defence, and they would not have come away with a draw if it was not for his brilliant goalmouth save. He provided plenty of experience and brought calmness to the Slovak side, and he showed plenty of leadership in continuing to ward off the English. He played well and will be a steadying presence if Slovakia progress.