It’s fair to say fate slipped Gareth Southgate an ace yesterday in The Kremlin. With the seeding system revised to reflect World Ranking rather than geographical location a repeat of the Uruguay- Italy- Costa Rica scenario from 2014 was never likely but this draw was pretty much everything England could have hoped for.
Firstly they drew Belgium from pot 1- they were always going to get a top class side (unless they happened to get Russia or Poland) and whilst Belgium have the superstars they remain a team far less than the sum of their parts- almost like another golden generation side we can all recall. Notably Belgium’s golden generation for all their talent have failed to land a win over a tier 1 nation in a competitive fixture and have been beaten by Wales 3 times.
With Belgium in the group the possibility of a second European side emerging from pots 3 or 4 was eliminated and with no South American sides in pots 3 or 4 the draw already looked easier. Then came Tunisia arguably the weakest of the African qualifiers, Tunisia are a solid defensive side but don’t pose the threat Nigeria or Egypt would offer.
And finally they drew Panama. At first it seemed Panama would go in Group F but with Mexico already in that group the Concaaf qualifiers were pushed into Group G with England. Panama are World Cup debutants but as The Beeb’s Tim Vickery was quick to point out ‘They’re not likely to do a Costa Rica.’ Panama are ultimately an ageing side who took advantage of the USA’s dismal campaign and grabbed third place in their confederation.
The match sequence looks favourable too with Tunisia up first followed by Panama meaning if (and it’s a huge if) England play to their potential the final match against Belgium is likely to simply decide who goes through as group winners and who as runners-up whilst Tunisia and Panama play out a dead rubber.
If England do progress fortune has again favoured them with England’s Group G paired with Group H meaning a clash with one of Poland, Columbia, Senegal or Japan. None of these would be easy games but none are exactly on the level of Germany, Brazil or France.
The concern for England will inevitably be can they peak at the right time something so often elusive for England in the past. Another worry is whilst Panama and Tunisia are limited sides that’s exactly the sort of opposition England struggled to see off in qualifying, England look most comfortable as a counter attacking side but will likely need to break down 2 stubborn opponents looking to get out with a point.
The FA will now likely arrange warm up games against similar sides to Tunisia and Panama- more than likely the USA and an African none qualifier.
But with a favourable draw there are no excuses for failure this time, England are not amongst the favourites but they need and suddenly expect a good tournament that at least sets a platform from which to launch their young side towards Euro 2020 and Qatar 2022. No pressure then, Gareth.
To Follow- Full draw review.