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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

England have cause for hope but must not look beyond Colombia at the World Cup

The draw has opened up for Gareth Southgate's side but their South American opponents on Tuesday night promise to be a real threat

England manager Gareth Southgate watches over his side in training. They face Colombia in the second round on Tuesday. Paul Ellis / AFP 
England manager Gareth Southgate watches over his side in training. They face Colombia in the second round on Tuesday. Paul Ellis / AFP 

Gareth Southgate was part way through a press conference last Wednesday when the news reached him.

Germany were out of the World Cup. Had the holders won their group, they would have been in the same half of the draw where England, by a combination of accident and design, find themselves.

In the nine days since their strongest side last played against Panama, there has been a cull of the favourites: first Germany, then Argentina, Portugal and Spain.

England have progressed serenely but, in a strange way, inconclusively. Their first XI have only faced Panama and Tunisia, two of the worst teams in the World Cup. They benefited from being in one of the lesser qualifying groups. Obstacles are being cleared from their path.

They now find themselves in a half of the draw where England are the lone World Cup winners and where no one has reached a final on foreign soil.

If England’s own rhetoric is understandably understated, others have no reason to be as restrained. “We will never have a greater chance of making progress in a World Cup,” said the former captain Bryan Robson.

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England’s history proves as much. They have not won a World Cup knockout tie since an undistinguished 1-0 victory against Ecuador in 2006. They have not beaten a team of Colombia’s calibre since the group-stage triumph over Argentina in 2002.

If it is understandable that fans get carried away by the prospect of a possible semi-final with Russia or Croatia and a quarter-final against either Switzerland or Sweden, the probability is the last-16 tie is tougher than the last-eight fixture they may never have.

Beneath the euphoria, and despite suggestions they are now third favourites to win the trophy, the reality is England arrive largely untested and unproven.

Harry Kane is a Golden Boot contender, but Dele Alli, who should return after missing the last two games, and Raheem Sterling are rooted on two international goals apiece.

Their defence did not keep a clean sheet in a poor pool. Their only experience of facing pedigree opponents under Southgate is in friendlies.

They have benefited from a culture reset, constructing a younger, fresher, friendlier group, but as Southgate has admitted, they will be judged by results on the pitch.

His own gamble of fielding a weakened side against Belgium was further vindicated when Spain then beat an ignominious exit on penalties to Russia on Sunday.

The weaker half of the draw got still weaker. Yet while England’s reserves did not acquit themselves well against Belgium, it brought more questions about one of the strongest side. Southgate gave Jordan Pickford his backing, but the rookie goalkeeper perhaps could have done better with Adnan Januzaj’s winner.

England have been pondering a historic weakness, too, practicing penalties. Once again, the impression is of methodical preparation, albeit with limited resources: Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy are the squad’s only regular spot-kick takers for their clubs.

Marcus Rashford has pronounced himself willing to take one, though he never has for Manchester United. Southgate acquiesced when asked by Robson, his boyhood hero, 22 years ago at Euro 96.

Terry Venables’ assistant asked if the defender had taken one before, not if he had scored one: his lone experience was of a miss for Crystal Palace.

It remains England’s last semi-final; perhaps the last time England generated such a feelgood factor. Footage of Southgate from the 1990s was recently discovered.

“Ultimately I want to be part of a team that wins a major championship with England,” he said two decades ago. “Only the 1966 squad can say that.”

Two decades on, that remains the case. Yet while there are more questions about how good England really are than answers, circumstances have made this their best chance.