Dele Alli dismissed “very dangerous” talk of England being in the easier half of the draw, with World Cup progress against Colombia all that is on the fit-again midfielder’s mind.
Gareth Southgate’s men are preparing for a tough-looking last-16 clash against the South Americans at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow on Tuesday. It is a chance for England to win a first knockout match since 2006 and atone for some galling major tournament defeats, the most high-profile of which was their humiliating Euro 2016 exit to minnows Iceland.
Alli was in the side that day so there is little chance of complacency seeping in against Colombia, despite some already looking ahead to a tasty quarter-final against Switzerland or Sweden and beyond.
“I think that’s very dangerous,” the attacking midfielder said when asked if it was fair to say England are in the easier half of the draw.
“We have to approach every game like we’re playing the best side in the world. There’s some top sides. For us, we’re not focusing on the next game. We want to get through Colombia. They’re a dangerous side and they’ve got a lot of great talent, so we have to be switched on to that and not look into the future, into the next games.”
Alli could have a starring role against Colombia as he looks to kick-start a World Cup thrown off kilter by a slight thigh strain picked up in the Group G opener against Tunisia.
“Yeah [I am fully fit],” the Tottenham man said after missing the Panama and Belgium matches.
“Obviously after the injury I was frustrated, but I’ve been doing a lot of work every day to make sure I’m back and I am ready to go.”
Even if Alli had been fit on Thursday, he would almost certainly have been rested against Belgium’s back-ups given he is one of England’s key men.
Southgate was criticised for his eight changes that night and the decision against pushing for the leveller, especially as a draw would have seen the side top the group on fair play.
“Firstly, we have to make it clear that the whole squad is the ‘A team’,” Alli said. “We’re all in this together. The boys played well. The manager made a decision and we all back him. Everyone is fighting for places.
“I don’t think we lost any momentum. We’re all fighting and raring to go and looking forward to the next game now. It’s important that we react positively to the defeat. We want to win every game, that’s our attitude going into it.”
Southgate said it would have been “ridiculous” to risk the likes of Harry Kane against Belgium with qualification assured. The England manager pointed to opponents Colombia as an example of what can go wrong as their key man James Rodriguez is a doubt for Tuesday’s game with the injury that forced him off in their final group match.
“Obviously he’s a fantastic player,” Alli said of the last World Cup’s Golden Boot winner. “He is a big threat for them, and for us, and a great player. We have to be ready for whoever plays. We don’t want to think too much about the other team. He holds a threat and we’re aware of that, but they’ve got a great squad. We have to be aware not just of the XI who are starting, but the whole 23.”
While England work out the threats posed by Colombia, Alli and his Tottenham team-mates need no introduction to Davinson Sanchez.
The 22-year-old centre-back has impressed since last summer’s big-money move from Ajax and will be charged with shackling World Cup top scorer Kane.
“He’s a great player,” Alli said of Sanchez. “I don’t think any player is perfect. We know how he plays and he has got a lot of strengths, and we’re going to look to try and exploit his very few weaknesses.”
The knockout phase, of course, brings with it the spectre of penalties, which Southgate’s men have been preparing for since March. England have lost six of their seven shootouts at major tournaments but Alli senses a change in fortune.
“We’re confident and we’re looking to change things,” he said. “If I’m on the pitch, I want to take one.”