An “excited” Gareth Southgate said England must strike a balance between being brave about what they can do in the 2018 World Cup and not underestimating two largely “unknown” opponents, as he admitted that their group after the draw in Moscow could well have been much more “dangerous” than it is given they were in pot two.
Southgate’s side face opening-round matches against Tunisia, Panama and a highly fancied Belgium side and, despite a schedule that will involve over 4,000 miles of travel between Volgograd, Nizhny Novgorod, Kaliningrad and their base in Repino near St Petersburg, the England manager played down concerns about travel. He also said that getting drawn in Group G has brought the advantage of a later start to the tournament, and admitted that he was pleased to avoid Brazil.
Southgate still talked up the challenge of a “top team” in a Roberto Martinez-led Belgium side England know all too well, saying it would bring some interesting conversations in Premier League dressing rooms given most of their players are based there, as he reflected on a repeat of the opening fixture of 1998 against Tunisia and a first ever match for the country against Panama.
“When we have just come from two tournaments where Costa Rica knocked us out, and then Iceland, it would be folly for us not to be serious about our preparation and make sure of our mentality, but also not being fearful of what might happen is an important balance to find,” Southgate said. “When you are a second seed you are always going to play one very good team and we could have ended up with someone like Serbia in pot four who might have been really dangerous, but equally these two teams are on a high and will relish the chance to play England. We are a team with some tournament experience, but we are not vastly experienced. We have to get the balance right.
“We have to be focussed, to make sure nothing is taken for granted which in fairness I don’t think is what happened. But we also have to handle the expectation of being one of the favourite teams in the group. For us as a team when you’re involved with England that’s the mentality you’ve got to have.
“Having played Brazil last month, I wasn’t disappointed to be missing out on them in the group. They will be serious contenders. Having said that Belgium with the quality of players they’ve got, the way they have qualified, they are a really top team.”
If all goes according to form, there is a chance England’s final group game with Belgium in Kaliningrad could decide who tops the group to potentially avoid Poland in the last 16, as they come back west after far flung trips to Volgograd and Nizhny Novgorod. Southgate said it was pretty much taken as a given they would have to travel far, however.
“We weren’t really concerned about that, whatever happened, we knew the maximum journey was a couple of hours. You couldn’t be in three different time zones anyway the way it was all prepared. So the interesting thing for us is starting later and what that might mean for us at the end of the season.
“We’ve got to get that period of training and recovery and freshness right so that needs a bit of working out now.”
England’s opening game against Tunisia on June 18 will be a repeat of their first match in 1998, a 2-0 win that Southgate played in, and talking about it brought out the genuine excitement in the 47-year-old.
“Tunisia takes me back to Marseille, one of the best days of my life, playing my first game in the World Cup finals for England, an incredible atmosphere down there, just the colour of it, the Beatles music playing before the game. It was a brilliant day. I remember sitting with Teddy Sheringham in doping control for an hour and a half afterwards. A brilliant occasion so to be leading the country out into that same occasion, the first game of the World Cup, I am hugely proud.
“Belgium we know pretty much everything about. That will capture everyone’s imagination at home. Probably the best team they have ever had. There will be a bit of banter going on at Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea with all the players winding each other up. I know Roberto really well. Graeme Jones I did my coaching courses with there will be a lot of fun leading into that. We will be bump each other at Premier League matches for the next couple of months.
“There’s quite a bit of unknown in the group at the moment. We have never played Panama, I have palled up with the coach from Mexico, so I was hoping he’d give me some insight, and he was saying exactly the same to their bloke. It’s really exciting who we are playing, when and we know where we will play, and it will be a little bit later than it might have been.
“It really takes you back to the pureness of football, the excitement everyone at home will be starting to feel of knowing what the games are going to be and where, it really took me back to when I was a kid filling in the games, and that genuine excitement of being involved in a World Cup.”
Southgate also joked that he “sat on the [FA] chairman’s hands” to avoid Greg Clarke or anyone else giving away their thoughts during the draw.
“You know as a second seed you’re going to play two teams ranked below you. But it’s still a bit of an unknown at this moment in time, it’s great now to get the videos out and start plotting and following exactly the players we’re going to be up against and the coaches.
“The great thing is when you are in the room everything comes alive, you are reminded how important first and foremost it is to be in it, to be mixing with all the coaches this morning, to recognise the worldwide attention, and the experience for all of us is hugely important.
“I think what I’m mindful of is that we have a team I’m excited about but who don’t have the trophies and medals on the table, the number of caps which winners and successful teams in past tournaments have had. So there’s an unknown of what we’re going to get but equally I’m excited about them, I believe in them and we’re really looking forward to the world Cup.”
Asked about a potential quarter-final against Germany or Brazil, Southgate just laughed. “I’m not looking that far ahead,” he said.
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