Kane leads hungry young England lions but tournament failures means optimism is tempered

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Will be England's main man: Harry Kane

Though untroubled in qualifying, England approach Friday’s 2018 World Cup draw harbouring the same eternal doubts about whether they will crack under pressure once the tournament comes around.

England have picked up the pieces impressively under Gareth Southgate since their humiliation by Iceland at Euro 2016, finishing unbeaten and eight points clear in their qualifying group.

Young players such as Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford promise a bright future, but memories of successive tournament failures mean any optimism is tempered by the caution of bitter experience.

“At the end of the day, we’ve not won anything for a long time,” says Kane.

“The biggest (challenge) is playing tournament football. Ability-wise, I don’t think we’re far off, but it’s producing on that big stage. It’s something that we’ve got to change.”

“Brittle” was the word used by football Association chief executive Martin Glenn to describe England’s psychological problems after the Iceland debacle, which yielded manager Roy Hodgson’s resignation.

The England squad’s delicate psychic state was not helped by events that followed, as Sam Allardyce, Hodgson’s successor, was brought down by a newspaper sting after just one game in charge.

Gesturing to his players: Gareth Southgate

Giving instructions: England manager Gareth Southgate

Southgate, promoted from his role as England Under-21s manager, has tackled the issue head-on, encouraging dialogue among his players about the appropriate mental responses to on-pitch adversity.

England made light work of a straightforward qualifying group featuring Slovakia, Slovenia, Scotland, Lithuania and Malta, dropping only four points on the road to Russia.

But a number of their victories were laborious and they completed qualification against Slovenia in front of swathes of empty red seats at Wembley.

STONES BLOSSOMS

The most recent international get-together earlier this month demonstrated both Southgate’s desire to widen England’s tactical range and his readiness to make bold selection decisions.

Having already jettisoned captain and record scorer Wayne Rooney, Southgate chose to overlook players such as Chris Smalling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere and Daniel Sturridge.

A raft of injuries meant he was forced to field two distinctly green teams against Germany and Brazil, but his new charges performed creditably in a pair of 0-0 draws.

A key figure in England's defence: John Stones

A key figure in England’s defence: John Stones

“We’re at a different point on our journey (to Germany and Brazil), but we will take huge belief from what we’ve done,” Southgate said.

The games also served to help Southgate test the 3-4-2-1 system that he is eager to employ in light of its successful adoption by several leading Premier League clubs.

The draws with Germany and Brazil further illustrated England’s defensive solidity after a qualifying campaign in which they conceded just three goals – a tally matched only by Spain in Europe.

Despite that, there are question marks about goalkeeper Joe Hart, who faces competition from Stoke City’s Jack Butland and Everton’s Jordan Pickford.

With John Stones blossoming at Manchester City, England now possess an authoritative figure in central defence who is capable of bringing the ball out from the back in the manner Southgate desires.

Stones’s City team-mate Kyle Walker and Tottenham Hotspur’s Danny Rose provide pace and power on the flanks and in Kane, who has scored 47 goals for club and country in 2017, England possess a first-rate frontman.

But though Alli, Rashford and Raheem Sterling give England plenty of variety in attacking midfield, aside from Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson there is a paucity of quality and experience in the centre of the pitch.

Provided by AFP Sport

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Fresh blood has injected new life into a Spain side back among the World Cup favourites

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Expecting a tough group: Julen Lopetegui

They may not be a top seed for Friday’s World Cup draw in Moscow, but the fresh blood added by coach Julen Lopetegui has put Spain back among the favourites for glory next July.

Early exits at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 appeared to show the sun was setting on Spain’s most successful generation after three consecutive major tournament triumphs at Euros 2008 and 2012 either side of La Roja’s only ever World Cup title in South Africa in 2010.

However, since succeeding Vicente del Bosque, Lopetegui has blended the experienced remnants of the World Cup winning side with a host of graduates from the under-21 team he led to a European title in 2013.

The results have been spectacular. Sixteen games into his reign, Lopetegui has yet to taste defeat.

Spain’s qualifying record of nine wins and a draw, scoring 36 goals and conceding just three, left Italy a distant second in Group G and on the brink of their World Cup abyss.

Just over a year after being dumped out of Euro 2016 by the Azzurri, Spain thrashed Italy 3-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu in September in a style reminiscent of the “tiki-taka” short-passing game that bamboozled opponents and won fans across the world between 2008 and 2012.

“I believe that the best thing a coach has to do is optimise and make the most of the virtues of his players”, Lopetegui told Barcelona-based sports newspaper Mundo Deportivo on Wednesday.

“I think that the best quality of Spanish players is their passing ability and individual technique. Logically, we have to take advantage of that.”

Lopetegui said it would be a mistake to try to adopt the Italian “door-bolt” defensive system.

“Spain can’t play catenaccio because that wouldn’t make the most of the quality of our players.”

YOUTH AND EXPERIENCE

Posing for the team photograph: Spain

Posing for the team photograph: Spain

The core that has survived from Spain’s heyday contains Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, David Silva, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.

Some of the energy and hunger missing in recent tournaments has been added by the likes of David de Gea, Koke, Isco, Thiago Alcantara and Alvaro Morata who plug the gaps left by Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol, Xavi and Xabi Alonso.

Morata’s stunning start to life at Chelsea has also eased a long-running void up front since David Villa and Fernando Torres were at their peak.

Villa, now 35 and plying his trade with New York City in Major League Soccer, was even recalled to the squad for the demolition of Italy two months ago.

Sometimes in the glory years Spain would line up without a recognised striker, and in this qualifying campaign the goals again flowed from a richly talented midfield.

David Silva is now Spain’s fourth highest goalscorer of all-time with 11 in 15 matches, whilst Isco has netted six goals in his last nine caps.

Spain may have to do it the hard way in Russia. Their seeding in pot two means the likes of Brazil, Germany or France could be waiting in the group stages.

“We know we’ll get a big team for sure,” added Lopetegui. “All the seeded teams are dangerous.

“We take what comes with confidence, believing in ourselves.”

Without doubt a revitalised Spain will be the lower seeded side others most want to avoid on Friday.

Provided by AFP Sport

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Five World Cup 'Group of Deaths' as Spain and England look to avoid latest

David Cooper 29/11/2017
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The 2018 World Cup finals draw takes place in Moscow on Friday, with the likes of England and Spain hoping to avoid a so-called ‘group of death’ against tough opponents who could feasibly end their interest in the tournament after three games.

Here, we look at five other such groups in World Cup history.

1970 (BRAZIL, CZECHOSLOVAKIA, ENGLAND, ROMANIA)

The term ‘grupo de la muerte’ was coined for this group by journalists in the host nation Mexico. England were world champions at the time, Brazil had won it in 1958 and 1962 and the Czechs were the team Brazil beat in the 1962 final.

England were defeated 1-0 by Brazil in the searing heat of Guadalajara, in a match famous for Gordon Banks’ incredible save from a Pele header, Bobby Moore’s sublime tackle on Jairzinho and the image of Moore and Pele swapping shirts at the end.

England made it out of the group but West Germany exacted revenge for 1966 in the quarter-finals. Brazil won the World Cup for a third time, and the line-up that thrashed Italy 4-1 regularly wins ‘greatest team of all time’ polls.

In Frame: Gordon Banks' remarkable save from a Pele header.

In Frame: Gordon Banks’ remarkable save from a Pele header.

1982 (ARGENTINA, ITALY, BRAZIL)

Slightly different to all the other groups featured here, as this one came in the second stage of the finals in Spain.

It pitted a free-wheeling Brazil side featuring the likes of Zico, Falcao and Socrates against an Argentina team featuring Diego Maradona, plus eventual winners Italy.

Italy and Brazil both beat Argentina and their head-to-head encounter was a classic settled by a Paolo Rossi hat-trick. The Azzurri advanced to the semi-finals as group winners and beat West Germany in the final.

Argentina vs Brazil: Diego Maradona takes a shot during the game.

Argentina vs Brazil: Diego Maradona takes a shot during the game.

1986 (DENMARK, SCOTLAND, URUGUAY, WEST GERMANY)

Alex Ferguson’s Scotland faced a daunting task in Mexico as they took on 1982 runners-up West Germany, the great ‘Danish Dynamite’ side featuring star names such as Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjaer and reigning South American champions Uruguay.

Denmark topped the group by winning all three of their matches, including a 6-1 hammering of Uruguay, but the Germans went the furthest by again reaching the final – this time losing to Argentina.

Scotland led 1-0 against West Germany as Gordon Strachan tried – and failed – to vault an advertising hoarding in celebration but ultimately lost 2-1, and took their solitary point against Uruguay, who had Jose Batista sent off in the first minute.

Get in boys: Scotland's Frank McAvennie celebrates a goal against Australia.

Get in boys: Scotland’s Frank McAvennie celebrates a goal against Australia.

2002 (ARGENTINA, ENGLAND, NIGERIA, SWEDEN)

David Beckham and England were pitted against Argentina – the team against whom Beckham had been sent off in the previous World Cup and who had knocked England out.

An opening draw against Sweden heaped extra pressure on the game against Argentina, which was settled by a Beckham penalty.

England drew their final group game with Nigeria and got through to the quarter-finals, where they were undone by Ronaldinho’s free-kick for eventual winners Brazil.

Beaten by Ronaldinho's brilliance: England

Beaten by Ronaldinho’s brilliance: England

2014 (COSTA RICA, ENGLAND, ITALY, URUGUAY)

Greg Dyke, the football Association chairman at the time, famously made a throat-slitting gesture at the time this draw came out, and it ultimately proved lethal for England who were out after defeats to fellow former world champions Italy and Uruguay.

Playing Italy in the extreme humidity of the Amazon jungle in Manaus didn’t help Roy Hodgson’s men.

Uruguay also fell by the wayside and star striker Luis Suarez sank his teeth into the shoulder of Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini in their final match and was given a nine-match international ban.

Controversy: Uruguay's Luis Suarez was handed a ban after biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini.

Controversy: Uruguay’s Luis Suarez was handed a ban after biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini.

Provided by Press Association Sport

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