Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

#ThreeLions: Will Gareth Southgate’s England rue a second-place finish in the World Cup knockout stages?

Posted on 29 June 2018 by Aramide Oladipo

The question is simple: Mistake or Masterstroke?

With England having secured a place in the World Cup Round of 16 for the first time in eight years, manager Gareth Southgate had a decision to make for the final group match against Belgium.

There were suggestions that finishing in second position would be more beneficial to England in the long-run of the tournament, as it would allow them to miss the chance of facing nations such as Brazil, Argentina, France and Portugal before the final next month.

A runners-up place would mean the Three Lions would face Colombia in the knockout stage and if they managed to win, an encounter with either Sweden or Switzerland would stand in the way of their first World Cup semi-final since 1990.

Before the final fixtures in Group G got underway, two former England internationals made their opinions very clear:

Although this had been billed as the match of the group before the tournament started, with both teams having already qualified, it turned out to be a forgetful display with Belgium making nine changes to England’s eight.

Former Manchester United forward Adnan Januzaj notched up the winning goal early in the second half to hand the Belgians a third consecutive victory in the tournament, securing first-place and setting up a match with Japan in the next round.

The defeat means that England must now overcome Colombia next Tuesday to keep their World Cup dreams alive and the result received a mixed response online:

Just to be clear, regardless of the outcome against the South Americans, Southgate shouldn’t be hung out to dry because he had the luxury to rest some of his key players, and he took it.

You could only imagine the criticism that would have been directed towards him, had he decided to put on Harry Kane in order to rescue a point, only to see his star man suffer an injury.

However, the most concerning aspect of these past few days has been the resurrection of that English arrogance amongst supporters and media alike that has led to unrealistic expectations in the past.

The assumption that England should be delighted to face a Colombia side who have just notched up two consecutive victories is beyond belief.

The assumption that England should feel comfortable meeting either a Sweden side who brushed aside the same Mexico team which started Germany’s World Cup downfall, or a Switzerland team who managed to hold favourites Brazil to a 1-1 draw needs to be reconsidered.

Embed from Getty Images

This sense of superiority amongst fans and even perhaps players as well has seen the national team suffer humiliating moments especially over the last decade, from failing to earn a point at home against Croatia to qualify for Euro 2008, to crumbling against Iceland in the Euros just two years ago.

With the heatwave across the UK set to continue up until the Round of 16 tie, let’s hope that Southgate does his utmost best to cool expectations amongst the Barmy Army.

The fact that Germany has been eliminated in the group stages shows that this World Cup is full of surprises but let’s be honest, the real surprise would be the Three Lions making it through to the quarter-final stage, given their recent knockout record.

So, to answer the question posed before: It certainly would be a mistake to expect England to reach the latter stages of the World Cup, but Southgate and his group of players have already pulled off a masterstroke in getting the nation behind them for the first time in a long time.

Photo Credit @ Wikimedia Commons