Here we are now. And it’s time to be entertained. What follows will be a recurring series of shorter posts where I highlight one country. These aren’t the favorites. These aren’t the teams I’m cheering for. They’re just chatter about certain sides I feel are worth discussing heading into Russia.
No better place to start than my own team: the Three Lions of England.
Every conversation should begin with mentioning the selection decisions manager Gareth Southgate made a couple of weeks ago. Mainly in the defence where a defensive back two or three (depending on formation) will have to rely on the likes of John Stones, Harry Maguire, Phil Jones and Gary Cahill. Not a bad bunch but not exactly the most reassuring hands to be in. Stones, Jones and Cahill all struggled for pitch time this past season (Jones was also oft injured for Manchester United) and Maguire played for a Leicester City side that shipped 60 goals over the course of the 2017-18 term. Only four teams conceded more in the Premier League! #ohboy
Which, of course, leads me to my confusion as to the glaring omission of Chris Smalling. Smalling starts week in and week out for one of the stingiest defences on the whole bloody globe! But he’s not getting a nod because Southgate has some sort of stubborn beef with his playing style?? He’s not good enough with the ball at his feet apparently. LOL GARETH. When Eden Hazard is teeing up Romelu Lukaku for Belgium’s winner just let me know how Smalling could have been a worse option than what we’re taking. It’s nonsensical. Smalling would bring experience off the bench (I’m not even saying he should start). Not to mention he’s been bagging the goals in the second half of the season (winner against City anyone?!). He didn’t even make the standby list!! Did Smalling and Southgate date at some point?? I do not understand it and frankly it’s a risk not bringing him. For what it’s worth, I had Smalling over Fabian Delph in my England 23.
But that’s Southgate on his power trip. He’s out to make a statement that neither he nor this squad is soft. They may be young but the aim is to shed that tag of never-will-be’s. And they have the talent to do it. I am not exactly sure how he will line the boys up but a potential front four of Jesse Lingard, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane should, at least on paper, scare the bejesus out of everybody at the tournament. With a hungry Marcus Rashford and a goal happy Jamie Vardy on the bench…hopes are high.
This is a massive World Cup for England. The old guard is gone. No one player remains from the golden era of Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand and Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole. This is the youth who have bided their time and come up through English academies. Many have played together for decades. And this is their moment to create a new and different chapter in the history of England. The group is there for the taking (Belgium the heavy favorite to top it, I should add) and winning in style is certainly an option.
At the very least this is an England team that will forge its own way. They got a taste of winning and the subsequent disappointment of crashing out at the Euros in 2016, but now they’re a little bit older. Wiser. Battle ready. The players are more of a focus at their clubs. The expectations are now there. It’s a youthful roster but a side that doesn’t know about the past. They don’t carry that aura of inevitably falling.
Listen, this might not be the country that lifts the trophy in a Moscow mid July, but this is the country that will remain dangerous versus anybody. There is no scare in this squad. The crux of the players on the pitch will be hailing from both Manchester clubs, Tottenham and the Champions League finalists Liverpool. Once the nerves wear off, the world may finally feel the bite of mighty old England.