Just a few months ago, the World Cup in Qatar loomed on the horizon and the build-up started to take hold. Any fan could be forgiven for saying that pretty much everything surrounding the England team was negative.
The three lions were on an awful run of form, having been relegated from their group in the UEFA Nations League, and destroyed 4-0 by Hungary. There were increasing calls from fans for manager Gareth Southgate to be sacked. Additionally, the injury list has been piling up at a crucial time, with Reece James and Ben Chilwell both sustaining injuries that ruled them out of the tournament in Qatar.
Yet now the mood surrounding the team is almost completely unrecognisable. The team has been rampant so far in their exploits on Qatari soil, having won three out of four games. They’ve scored 12 goals while conceding only two, with players involved at every position – from Jude Bellingham at Centre-Midfielder to Phil Foden at Attacking Winger – playing some of their best-ever football.
Apart from a lacklustre and dogged draw against the United States in their second group game, England has consistently looked like one of the best sides in the tournament. They’re certainly looking like the team to beat. Will this England team be the one to finally end 56 years of trophyless hurt?
So far, England has undoubtedly been one of the tournament’s best sides. Gareth Southgate has gone a long way to silence and prove wrong even some of his harshest critics, however, the real tests that the Qatar World Cup will pose for England are only just beginning.
England has certainly impressed so far. Brilliant performances have taken place in the context of games against lesser, beatable opposition. England’s three victories – however resounding they may have been – have come against a defensively poor Iran side, a Welsh side that was all but already out of the tournament, and a Senegalese side that was missing its best player and captain in Sadio Mane. Additionally, despite Senegal’s proven credibility on the international stage, they simply did not show up for large parts of the Round-of-16 tie.
Yet that all changes on Saturday for England’s Quarter-Final tie, when they take on France, the reigning world champions and number-four-ranked side in the world.
In referring to the game as a “once in a lifetime” moment, ex-England defender turned TV pundit Gary Neville was absolutely right. The events that will take place on Saturday from 7pm to 10pm promise to be a showdown of epic proportions, between what are arguably the current two best international sides in the world. We will get to see the world’s best and fastest attacking winger, Kylian Mbappe, pitted against one of the world’s best and fastest full-backs, Kyle Walker. We’ll also see an age-old battle between veteran centre-back Raphael Varane and long-term prolific striker Harry Kane, and a youthful midfield of Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham taking on the experience of players such as
Adrien Rabiot and Antoine Greizmann.
Now when it comes to predictions, I will not even dare to make my call as to who will come out on top in this enormous clash. In my opinion, the sides are simply too closely matched to make a definitive statement before the game as to who will win, as there is hardly a grain of sand between the two teams when it comes to quality and talent (as anyone who has attempted to make a combined eleven of the two sides will have found out). It all simply comes down to who was the clinical cutting edge that is required in international football, and turns up on the day.
Will we see another defensive and pragmatic Gareth Southgate masterclass, as was demonstrated in England’s iconic victory over the Germans at Wembley in Euro 2020? Will the French turn on the style as they did in the second half against Poland in the round of 16 and blow England’s often second-rate defence away? Which one of these teams will experience their next penalty shootout heartbreak, something they have both experienced all too much of in recent years?
Putting my indecisive predictions aside, one thing certainly is for sure going into Saturday’s box-office contest. Whoever wins this all-important game will automatically become the tournament favourites, and will be looking at facing – and probably being fancied to beat – Brazil in the final.
With this team, it is probably the greatest chance that England will ever have to win something. When else can anyone remember a time when England had every single member of their starting XI playing to the highest ability, and won knockout games by three goals with absolute ease? Not to get carried away, but we will win on Saturday, and it may well finally be coming home. No pressure lads.
To conclude, I would like to echo the sentiment of BT Sport pundit Rio Ferdinand’s often ‘memed’ statement about watching Messi and Ronaldo, “just enjoy it.”
Despite the great permutations that dominate the mindset when thinking about Saturday’s game, and the fact that England’s hopes of ending generations of near-misses ride on the occasion, it must be remembered that football is all in all just a bit of fun, however important it may seem at times.
Whatever the result, every football fan across the nation on Saturday will have an amazing time with all of their friends watching the game in their local pub, and getting completely immersed in the drama that will inevitably take place. A World Cup grudge match on a Saturday night, this sort of situation doesn’t come around often.