The general low-expectations surrounding the team is, I'd argue, a positive, if recent tournaments are anything to go by.
Think back to the 2012 European Championships. England were written off beforehand but in fact won their group and only went out on penalties to eventual runners-up Italy in the quarter-finals. The lack of expectations meant that England's new manager Roy Hodgson didn't have to apologise for adopting safety-first tactics in the first match against France (1-1) and also against Italy. But two years later in the World Cup, it was very different story.
Hodgson came under enormous pressure to unleash his young attacking talents- who we were told were real world beaters- and to really ‘go for it'. Hodgson buckled and went against his usual cautious instincts in the opening match with Italy. The result was a 2-1 defeat, leaving England playing 'catch-up' in their next game with Uruguay.
Again, England's positivity cost them dear, as they lost 2-1 and their World Cup interest was over. At 1-1, they could have played ‘stick', which would have kept their chances alive. But they gambled and paid the price. What's this all got to do with Russia? Quite a lot, actually.
The low-key build-up to England's World Cup bid and the anti-Russian politicking at home is likely to work in Southgate's favour. He can deploy the tactics he thinks are best, whether they're attacking ones or defensive ones, and won't be under any great pressure as few think his team has any chance of lifting the trophy.
England's form going into the tournament has been good, and the striking thing (no pun intended), has been their excellent defensive record. In their last eight internationals, going back to last September, they have only conceded two goals. That run has included games with World Champions Germany, and Brazil, both of which ended 0-0. Southgate is a thoughtful, pragmatic coach who has fashioned a team which is hard to beat but which also possesses plenty of pace up front. Under his stewardship, England should qualify from their group through low-scoring victories over Tunisia and Panama and then they will face Poland, Colombia, Japan or Senegal in the first knock-out stage. They could get past that hurdle- but would find things a lot tougher in the quarter-finals, which is their likeliest point of exit. Even so just reaching the last eight would be seen as a considerable achievement given their recent poor record in the tournament (no quarter-finals since 2006). Odds of between 16-18-1 for a team that hasn't won the World Cup for 52 years are too short, but the 'Three Lions' could still outperform some shorter-priced rivals.
The EPL: Man City Uber Alles
The final fixtures of the English Premier League are played on Sunday with the only two major issues still to be decided are who will finish fourth and grab the final Champions League spot, and who will be relegated, along with Stoke and West Brom. Barring a miracle that third place will be taken by Swansea City who not only have to beat Stoke to have any chance of staying up, but also hope that Southampton lose to Man City- and that there is a ten goal pull between the two teams on goal difference. Odds of 1-1000 on Swansea beating the drop reflects the enormity of their task. As for fourth place, Chelsea will have to win at Newcastle and hope Liverpool lose at home to Brighton to sneak in- and again- that doesn't look very likely.
The great over-achievers of the Premiership campaign have been Burnley, who defied the laws of gravity to finish seventh. They got the season off to a flyer with a 3-2 win at Champions Chelsea and it's fair to say Sean Dyche's men never looked back. Plaudits too for ex-England manager Roy Hodgson for the great job he did guiding Crystal Palace to safety. Palace became the first team since Liverpool in the 19th century to lose their first seven matches and still stay up. Palace made the right managerial call, but sadly West Brom didn't. Sacking Tony Pulis after a 4-0 home defeat to Chelsea in November looked premature at the time- and so it proved. Whatever you think of his style of football, Pulis had never obtained less than 42 points in his time as a Premiership manager and it's likely he would have kept the Baggies afloat again this time with enough hard-fought 1-0 wins and 0-0 draws had the board not panicked. Having sacked Pulis too soon, they arguably compounded the error by sacking his successor Alan Pardew too late, giving Darren Moore too little time to try and keep the club up with his 'back to basics' tactics, which proved so effective against Manchester United, Liverpool, Newcastle and Tottenham.
It seems a long time ago now but on Sunday 27th August West Brom were leading Stoke City 1-0 at the Hawthorns and heading to the joint top of the Premiership with Manchester United with three wins out of three. Then a defensive mix-up occurred thirteen minutes from time which allowed Stoke to equalise and the club incredibly didn't win another league match until January. If we're looking for turning points of the season then that was definitely one. Another was the 4-1 defeat of West Ham by Swansea on 3rd March- which was the Swans seventh consecutive home win in all competitions. Carlos Carvahal's team-who got all the plaudits following that victory, haven't won a match since, while West Ham regrouped and made their way to safety. Swansea, who climbed up to 13th in the table, probably thought that a few draws would see them over the line, but lack of urgency in the final weeks of the season cost them dear. Finally we have to mention Huddersfield Town.
Last season 'The Terriers' got promoted from the Championship, even though their goal difference was negative. This time they have secured their Premiership status, even though they have scored less than 30 goals. David Wagner has shown that he's a genius at preparing his time mentally and tactically for the key matches, where points must be taken. Huddersfield got off to a flyer with a 3-0 win at Palace, and despite some heavy defeats, kept picking up points at the right time to keep clear of danger. Any team that can get a 0-0 draw at Manchester City- and then follow it up with a 1-1 draw at Chelsea, when the home team is desperate for a win to grab a Champions League place, has to be particularly proud of itself.
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