The real World Cup for both the Three Lions and their manager Gareth Southgate starts now after having dispatched Senegal, who were clearly hapless and directionless without their lynchpin Sadio Mane.
The champions of Africa were de-fanged with minimal fuss after a tense initial 30 minutes in the round of 16 and England are now ushered into the next stage where all the big-hitters are gathered and eager for the real action.
The Three Lions have been rewarded for their 3-0 win at Al Bayt Stadium on Sunday with a quarterfinal tie against formidable France back at the same stadium on Saturday, courtesy of goals from Jordan Henderson, Harry Kane and Bukayo Saka. For the England stars it’s a date to be relished with former World Cup winner and France dynamo Kylian Mbappe, who is reportedly having the tournament ‘of his dreams’, having already amassed five goals in four games.
The task at hand is inevitably a daunting one as England would have to accomplish something they have never done before to proceed – win a knockout game against a major nation away from Wembley Stadium.
Making a deeper run into tournaments isn’t something alien to Southgate after having reached the World Cup semifinals in 2018 and the final of the European Championships in 2021. However both times the draw opened up, allowing England to reach the last four in Russia when they beat Columbia and Sweden before capitalizing to Croatia eventually. The other side of the bracket included Portugal, Bargentina, Brazil and France, who emerged the eventual winners.
As for the Euros, the story was a similar at when Southgate’s team beat Germany (at Wembley) and then played Ukraine and Denmark for a place in the final, where they lost to Italy on penalties.
The fault is evidently not Southgate’s that recent draws have been manageable, even kind, but taking on defending champions France on foreign soil is a definite step up on both those earlier campaigns.
“It’s the biggest test we could face,” said Southgate. “They’re world champions. They’ve got an incredible depth of talent with outstanding individual players. It’s a fantastic challenge and a brilliant game for us to prepare for. The two quarterfinals that are already in place are historic football rivalries and great games from the past. It’s a great game for us to be involved in and test ourselves against the best.”
Questions revolving around the build-up will most certainly be dominated by how the Three Lions plan to stop Mbappe, who earlier on Sunday scored a brace in a magnificent 3-1 win over Poland, bringing his tally to 5 in the tournament so far. Strategically it would also be unlikely to have eluded France manager Didier Deschamps’ attention that England defender Harry Maguire seemed to have a nervy start against Senegal and looked awkward under the intense initial pressure and pace set by Senegal, albeit without their main star Sadio Mane.
France are expected to be a lot less accommodating and much will come down to Southgate and his team selection. There’s a sense that Southgate only likes to play with four defenders when he knows England are going to dominate the ball and that’s not a given against a France team who will also want to play on the front foot.
“Mbappe is a world-class player and has already delivered big moments in this tournament and in previous tournaments,” said Southgate.
“There is also [Antoine] Griezmann and he’s a phenomenal player. There’s Olivier Giroud, who we know so well, and they’ve got some outstanding young midfield players so everywhere you look they’ve got incredible depth of talent. It’s a huge test but one we’re looking forward to and a great challenge for our team.”
When England run into the big guns at the business end of a major tournament away from home, a plane ticket home usually follows.
Regardless of what his final decision will be, Southgate can at least take comfort in the knowledge that he’s got his big selection calls right so far.
Now all he’s got to do is figure out a way to stop Mbappe. Which is much easier said than done, of course.