What a group stage! 48 games, 122 goals. A shocking German exit, Spain and Portugal nearly bottling it, Nigerian heartbreak and a very drunk Diego Maradona – this year’s tournament has had it all.
Perhaps the best story, on these shores at least, was England. Two wins from their opening two games, including their biggest ever at a World Cup, got them through and meant we could all watch the game last night without losing fingernails or hair.
The stage is set for the last 16 and England have a great chance of at least making the semis. Joel McInally and Andrew Sinclair provide their thoughts on England’s performances so far and what’s next for Gareth Southgate’s men. And of course, they provide an answer to the big question – After 52 years of hurt, is it finally coming home?
Meet your writers
Andrew: Andrew is Editor-in-Chief and one of the firmest believers that it might, just might, finally be coming home. You can follow Andrew on Twitter at @AMSinclair97 for all things darts, England, boxing, England and Gareth Southgate appreciation.
Joel: Joel is a deputy sports editor that has been converted into believing that Gareth Southgate is the second-coming of Alf Ramsey, or maybe just another Fabio Capello. Either way, it’s (maybe) coming home, so book the open top bus tour, just make sure there is a cancellation clause. You can follow Joel on Twitter @JoelMcInally.
What’s your overall assessment of England across the three games so far?
Andrew: Fair to middling.
It’s tough to judge England properly on what we’ve seen thus far. They picked up wins against sub-par opposition and then in the only real test so far, they fielded a B team that never really got out of second gear. In patches they’ve looked tremendous going forward and importantly are creating good opportunities, especially from set plays, but England have also looked wide open at the back. If sides like Panama are getting three good chances in a game, that poses big questions against tougher sides later on in the competition.
Joel: I think it’s very difficult to judge them. Against Tunisia England looked wasteful, at times lacking creativity and weak at the back. Then they hammer Panama 6-1. While nothing should be taken away from the fact that it is very difficult to score six in a World Cup match, it must be remembered that two goals were from set-pieces, two penalties, one lucky deflection and one wonder goal. This, and the fact England conceded a sloppy goal, means the questions about creativity and their ability to defend remain. The Belgium game is not worth analysing as it was essentially two B teams having a 90 minute kickabout.
What did you make of the other sides in England’s group?
Andrew: Panama had the opportunity at this World Cup to live out a nice underdog story, just like Iceland. Yet the way they played, with flailing limbs and challenges that would have looked more at home on the gridiron, they left a very sour taste in the mouth and I’m glad they went home pointless and with the worst defence at the finals. Tunisia also enjoyed their fair share of rough and tumble, but they seemed up for the fight and did score five. Belgium were Belgium, flattering to deceive despite their abundance of talent. They’re a great squad but not a great team and it’s hard to see them progressing much further.
Joel: Tunisia were stubborn against England, before being routed by Belgium. Panama were utterly shambolic. Belgium looked good in both their games but were playing poor sides and, like England, are untested against top sides. Nobody doubts Belgium’s talent, but it will be their ability to hold their nerve in the big games that will be the difference between success and failure for them.
Did anyone in the squad particularly impress or disappoint?
Andrew: There’s two obvious categories for me – those that stepped up and proved they deserved a spot, and those who really have done nothing to fill me with confidence.
I’ll start with the first category. Kieran Trippier has been excellent down the right-hand side for England, whilst Ruben Loftus-Cheek has played with real drive and energy since replacing the crocked Dele Alli. Obviously Kane is in a league of his own in terms of performance, but the other player who has shone, to my mind, is Danny Rose. I didn’t get why Young started the first two games, with his persistent desire to cut back, but Rose was electric last night and thoroughly deserves a starting spot.
In terms of disappointments, there have been a few. Sterling has looked insipid and like he’d struggle to hit a barn door with a banjo, whilst Pickford has looked shaky on the few occasions he’s had work to do. Why is he punching those shots away?? Harry Maguire has had a tendency to switch off also, but he’s mostly stepped up.
Joel: I think Kieran Trippier has been superb, with him looking a real threat going forward. Lingard has also looked sharp and was brilliant against Panama, with his performance being capped off with a fine goal. Then there has been captain fantastic Harry Kane who has had five goals from five shots and will be integral to any English success. In terms of underperformance Sterling has not been great and should maybe be replaced by Rashford. While the defence has been poor there is no sense replacing them for even poorer options on the bench, although I would probably drop Maguire for Cahill due to the threat Cahill offers in the box. Delph’s appearances have shown that there was absolutely no reason for his inclusion.
Have our fellow England fans got reasons to be confident ahead of the Colombia game on Tuesday night or are we set for more disappointment?
Andrew: As Gary Neville said last night, this is the most confident we’ve had the right to be for ages. England seem happy and energised and they are going up against a Colombian side who haven’t done much as yet. Yerry Mina will be a big threat for them at set-pieces, and I doubt that’s an area where England will have much success, but the Colombian midfield isn’t the most mobile and without Rodriguez I suspect they’ll be limited for creative spark. Back the boys on Tuesday night, they’ve got a bloody good chance. 2-1 England.
Joel: Simply put, yes. Colombia have been very hit and miss and James Rodriguez’s injury woes will hit them hard. If England stick to their tactic of making the most of set-pieces while getting the ball to Kane at every chance, then England should win, even if it is close. Do not even rule out the dreaded penalty shootout.
The big question – Is it coming home?
Andrew: HE’S GOT THREE LIONS ON A SHIRT!
I’ve been a keen proprietor of the ‘It’s coming home’ narrative since the tournament began. Gareth Southgate is a manager we can be proud of, and is clearly a man, who like myself, loves the darts. There’s less expectation around this team than most of their predecessors and they seem an altogether nice group of lads. Why shouldn’t we root for them? It’s not like there’s much else to cheer about in the country right now.
Will we win it? Probably not. In my heart, however patriotic, I know that. I expect we beat Colombia and then probably Switzerland before crumbling before Spain or Croatia. Spoiler – I think that projected Spain/Croatia quarter-final will give you your 2018 World Cup winner.
If we bring it home though, you’ll never hear the end of it. Southie’s getting the highest honours in the land, I’ll start a petition to change the national anthem to Three Lions and I’ll sing for evermore.
Joel: Yes. No. Maybe. I expect England to beat Colombia, and then follow that up with a win against Switzerland or Sweden in the quarters. I do not expect England to win these matches comfortably, but I do expect them to win. In the semis it will likely be Spain or Croatia. I think both of these games would be close, but ultimately a step too far for England. It would be even more fitting if England suffer more penalty heartbreak in the semis. Or maybe I’m wrong and England will bring the trophy, and football, home and the nation will feast on the tears of Neymar in the final and we will worship Lord Gareth Southgate and Sir Harry Kane for all time.
Who would you pick to start the Colombia game?
Joel: Pickford; Walker, Stones, Cahill; Trippier, Henderson, Loftus-Cheek, Lingard, Rose; Rashford, Kane
Andrew: Pickford, Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Henderson, Loftus-Cheek, Lingard, Rose; Vardy, Kane.