England take on Tunisia in their opening Group G match in Volgograd on Monday. For once, there's little hype surrounding England at the World Cup. Come to think of it, how could there be given England hasn't won a World Cup match for nearly eight years?
But there's a building sense of optimism that this young England team could produce some impressive performances in Russia. They have won plaudits for their positive approach in the warm-up games and there's widespread respect for coach Gareth Southgate. That was evident in the low-key way he went about picking his squad. Southgate has made it a priority of winning back the hearts and minds of the country during his time in the job.
England captain Harry Kane and Tunisia captain Wahbi Khazri. Reuters
Southgate has also sought to fundamentally alter the dynamic with the media in hopes it will alleviate the pressure on his team and translate into fearless performances.
Though teams of the recent past may have had more high-profile names, Southgate has potentially more options at his disposal. The squad, one of the youngest in Russia, is versatile, meaning Southgate can adjust the way his team plays.
Against Tunisia he's likely to play with three at the back — John Stones, Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire — and another line of three, including two wing-backs, in front.
Harry Kane, who has yet to score in tournament football, will spearhead the attack, that's clear. What's more interesting is the combination Southgate opts for around the striker — three from Jesse Lingard, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford. Whatever Southgate decides, that trident will be primed to sow confusion among the Tunisian ranks.
That attack is why England are widely expected to beat Tunisia, just as they did almost 20 years ago when the teams played their first group match in the World Cup in France.
Tunisia, back in the World Cup after 12 years, have a lot to prove too.
The team, after all, blazed a trail in 1978 by becoming the first team from Africa to win a match at the World Cup. In their three tournaments since, they have yet to notch a second.
Though England are the favorites, Tunisia are likely to present a challenge, especially if conditions remain hot and muggy. Under Nabil Maaloul, Tunisia are well-organized, particularly in defence. Spain can bear witness to that, requiring a late winner in their final friendly game before the World Cup.
The team may have lost arguably their best creative player, Youssef Msakni, to injury, but there are others who can trouble England. Fit-again forward Wahbi Khazri, who has turned in strong performances for French side Rennes, and left-back Ali Maaloul are players to watch.
With inputs from agencies
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Updated Date: Jun 19, 2018 02:21:48 IST