Gareth Southgate accepts that England will expect his side to progress in the World Cup thanks to yesterday’s undeniably favourable draw for Russia 2018, but he will be taking nothing for granted after recent disappointments.
Speaking after the slick ceremony at the Kremlin, the England manager admitted he was relieved to have avoided major powers such as Brazil but said his team will face a “fascinating” challenge against Group G rivals Tunisia, Panama and top seeds Belgium.
“There’s one team we know so much about in Belgium – one of the best teams in the world – and two teams we, at the moment, know a lot less about,” the 47-year-old said.
“Panama, we’ve never played, and Tunisia have qualified through the African group, which is strong, so they’re to be respected.
“We’re the second-ranked team in that group so it’s understandable how people will pitch it but, equally, in the last two tournaments we went out to teams we thought we’d beat.
“At the last World Cup, Costa Rica went through instead of us and Italy, and then, in the last Europeans, we know what happened with Iceland (at Euro 2016).
“So we’ve got to be mentally prepared in those games, not in terms of underestimating them, because I don’t think we do that with anybody, but we’ll have to handle being the favourites and that’s one of the challenges of being an England player.”
With Belgium able to call upon Premier League stars such as Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku at Manchester United, they are currently ranked fifth in the world, ten places higher than England.
Southgate said the teams’ club connections would no doubt lead to considerable training-ground banter. But the links between the teams extend to the dugouts, as Belgium are managed by former Swansea, Wigan and Everton boss Roberto Martinez, a man Southgate is used to seeing at games and with whom he once shared a TV studio at the 2012 European Championships.
The England boss also did his coaching badges with Belgium’s assistant coach Graeme Jones, the former Doncaster and Wigan striker who has been Martinez’s right-hand man for the last decade.
Martinez, who also looked pretty happy with his fixtures, said Southgate is “a gentleman I admire and I wish him the best of luck, apart from the game in the World Cup”.
That game, the pair’s last in the group, is in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland, and takes place on 28 June.
England’s opener is against Tunisia, currently ranked 27th, in Volgograd on 18 June, with the game against 56th-ranked Panama in Nizhny Novgorod on 24 June.
This means England will play in three new, medium-sized stadiums and will avoid any particularly arduous journeys from their quiet base in Repino, near St Petersburg. Volgograd is 1,000 miles away, two and a half hours by plane, while the flights to Nizhny and Kaliningrad will both be under two hours.
In total, the team will travel 4,700 miles in the group stage, which sounds a lot but this is the world’s largest country and they have avoided trips to the most distant, and warmest, venues and will only cross one time zone.
Starting on the tournament’s fifth day will also give Southgate longer to prepare after the Premier League season, although Tunisia’s manager Nabil Maaloul pointed out this also helps his team as it means they do not have to play while fasting for Ramadan.
Southgate, however, has another reason to be happy about playing the North African side first as he made his World Cup debut in England’s 2-0 win over Tunisia at France 98.
“Being involved in that game – the colour and the atmosphere around it – was one of the best days of my life,” he said.