England star John Stones thankful to Gareth Southgate and Vincent Kompany

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John Stones is thankful to Gareth Southgate for keeping the faith during his difficult end to the season – and World Cup rival Vincent Kompany for inadvertently boosting England’s chances.

Preparations are under way for Sunday’s penultimate Group G match against Panama, with the Manchester City centre-back surely a shoo-in to start in Nizhny Novgorod.

Stones was taken aback when described as England’s defensive kingpin, yet he has established himself at the heart of the back three and started the Three Lions’ last nine matches.

It is a far cry from life at City. Stones struggled for game time in 2018 and missed two months towards the end of the season, yet Southgate’s faith never wavered.

“I spoke to Gareth,” he said. “I got a lot of little injuries and things that weren’t said out in public. That’s why I wasn’t in the squad as much.

“I wanted to make sure I was right to fight for my spot at City and I never took my spot for granted in the England team. Never will, or ever think like that.

“I knew I had to fight right until the end, even though some people may say different.

“Gareth’s shown a lot of faith in me. I can’t express enough how thankful I am for that.

Southgate leads a training session

“Sometimes you’re in difficult spots as players where form’s not right and he’s got a difficult decision to make whether ‘should I play him or not’.

“He knows us well enough by now, our characters, individually they’re all different, it’s down to him.”

Stones is learning a lot from Southgate, just as he is from City boss Pep Guardiola and skipper Kompany.

The Belgium defender has been passing advice onto his team-mate and may have unwittingly aided England ahead of their Group G meeting on June 28.

“I remember Vinnie was injured in my first season, and this season obviously, but he got some clips that he wanted to help me out with,” Stones said of “class act” and “born winner” Kompany.

“We speak after games and how things went.

“We got some clips, sat down together and he wanted to give his advice and opinion on these actions.

“For someone to do that and try to help me as a young player, it says a lot about the person.

“I look up to him as a captain and a friend because of the things he has done for me in the last two years.”

Stones’ improvements saw him make his first major tournament appearance on Monday.

Reduced to a watching brief at Euro 2016, he was a standby player at the last World Cup and watched Roy Hodgson’s men collapse in the group stage from afar.

“I am a lot wiser,” he said, reflecting on 2014.

“I was very nervous going into that England squad. It’s difficult to say.

Stones of Manchester City speaks to Vincent Kompany

“It was a very fresh feeling when I went into the squad and I felt I had to kind of show the lads what I could do and almost tried a bit too hard.

“It was a great experience for me getting two caps out in Miami.

“I was young, very young, at the time and I felt maybe I had to prove myself to a lot of my heroes, to be honest.

Playing with heroes and a lot of players I’d watched over the years.

“It was a lot of things to take in. I was enjoying myself and kind of just going with it.

“I would have loved to have been on that plane, but I think now that’s put me in a better position coming into this World Cup.”

Stones learned a lot watching that World Cup, just as he picked up a lot from the Tunisia match.

“We knew how they were going to play but also how the referees are going to treat us,” he added.

“I thought there were a lot of decisions the other night that weren’t fouls – silly decisions that went both ways.
“Sometimes when we got a foul I felt it wasn’t a foul.

“So, it’s different from when you are playing in the Premier League to coming into a World Cup with a lot of foreign referees who are used to a different style of football.

“That’s a different thing in itself to adapt to.”

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England star Fabian Delph to return home for birth of child ahead of Tunisia clash

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England’s Fabian Delph is ready to miss a World Cup match to be at the birth of his third child.

All eyes are on Monday’s Group G opener against Tunisia in Volgograd, with Gareth Southgate‘s squad made aware of his intended starting line-up two days early.

Delph did not give away whether he got the nod but is ready to forego a starting role this summer in order to be by wife Natalie’s side.

It is hard to remember a similar scenario with England at a major tournament, but the midfielder’s partner is due to give birth on June 30 – just two days after the final Group G match against Belgium.

“I don’t think it would affect me mentally,” Delph said.

“Obviously I’d have to get back to England and then get back again, so that’s obviously not ideal but it’s part of life.

“I’m about to have my third child and I’m not going to miss it if I can help it, but I want to get back as fast as I can, so we’ll have to see.”

Asked if he was prepared to miss a game if it came to it, Delph said: “Yeah, absolutely.

Fabian Delph of England

“We’ve got a fantastic squad, great players, and if I am selected to play and I have to make my way back to see my family, there are players more than capable of doing the job I can do, if not a lot better.

“I’m confident with that decision, yeah, definitely.”

Delph joked he would have a private plane waiting “with lots of champagne” on it.

On a more serious note, the Football Association is ready to sort flights whenever he gets the text from home.

The England midfielder said Emily Webb, England senior team operations coordinator and PA to Southgate, is ready to get him back as quickly as possible – and with the blessing of the England manager.

“Gareth understands how important family is to me, and he’s the same as well,” Delph said.

“We’ve spoken about it a lot. I think he was away at an England camp and he had to fly back to see the birth of his child, he got there 10 minutes before – so hopefully I can do the same.”

Delph appears to have a close relationship with Southgate, despite only making his first England appearance under him earlier this month.

“I’ve been selected in every squad this season,” the Manchester City midfielder said. “I’ve just had niggles and wasn’t able to stay.

“I’ve been speaking to the lads we’ve got at City, I spoke to Gareth often, so I’ve been well aware of what’s been going on and what’s been said in camp.

“So coming into this camp, it’s not like I’m a fish out of water. I’m well aware of what the standards are and what Gareth wants from his players.”

Harry Kane epitomises everything Southgate wants from his team, so it was little surprise to see the striker handed the captain’s armband for Russia.

“No, nothing changes,” Delph said of the striker. “I think, with H, he’s always been a captain – whether he had the armband or not.

“Him getting the armband has not changed him one little bit: he still never passes, he still shoots at every opportunity.

“But he’s a great guy, a good leader, and a very talented player. An absolute goalscorer and he’s a breath of fresh air to be around.”

Now comes the small matter of leading England to success in Russia – and ideally a winning start against Tunisia.

“We won’t be able to roll them over,” Delph added. “I likened them to Manchester City in terms of how they like to try and play football and move the ball around fast.

“We won’t be able to just roll them over, they’re an in-form team.

“They are very confident, very comfortable on the ball, so we will have to be on our toes and implement our game plan spot on to get the win.”

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Paul Pogba backed to shine at World Cup by former Manchester United teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic

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Ibrahimovic and Pogba at Manchester United.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has backed former Manchester United team-mate Paul Pogba to shake off recent criticism and shine at the World Cup for France.

Pogba is coming off an up-and-down season for the Premier League runners-up and was booed by France fans during a recent friendly.

However, Ibrahimovic, who shared a good friendship with Pogba during their time as team-mates, said he will rise to the occasion this summer.

“I think Pogba for sure, who everybody knows is fast and skilful,” Ibrahimovic said to FIFA’s website when asked which players could make an impact this summer.

He also tipped Pogba’s teammate Kylian Mbappe to make his mark after his sensational rise to stardom over the last two seasons.

“Mbappe, an upcoming star who still has more to give to get to the top, but he will for sure arrive there.”

Ibrahimovic also gave his thoughts on Neymar, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo, the players widely regarded as the three best in the world, all of whom will be carrying the hopes of their teams and nations in Russia.

“I think Neymar, after being injured and coming back, will have a lot of hunger to play and will lift his team and they will push for him.

“I think with Messi, the picture is normal: he is the best and the team follows him. Ronaldo, the same thing. Let’s see what happens.

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