Gareth Southgate greeted England’s relatively kind Euro 2020 qualification draw in Dublin on Sunday by challenging his team to win the entire tournament.
Having won their Nations League group this autumn, England have already qualified for a Euro 2020 play-off but Southgate will be justifiably furious if that is required after they were drawn against the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Kosovo.
Ranked fifth in the world, England are 37 places higher than the Czechs, the next best team, and have never lost a game to any of the quartet.
“We’re favourites and that’s something we’ve got to start getting used to anyway,” Southgate said.
“We’re going to have high expectations over the next few years and adapting to that is probably key to our development as a team. Look, it’s up to us isn’t it?”
Having surprised most experts, and perhaps even himself, by taking England to the last four at the World Cup, the 48-year-old has since presided over a thrilling England win in Spain and revenge over Croatia, the team that ended the Three Lions’ run in Russia.
Those victories have taken England to another last-four situation – and another shot at winning only their second senior international title – at next summer’s Nations League finals in Portugal. There, they will be up against the hosts, the Netherlands and Switzerland, with a draw on Monday deciding the path to glory.
But an even bigger prize could be on offer a year later, when Wembley hosts seven of Euro 2020’s 50 games, including both semi-finals and the final.
“I think it can be a really exciting 18 months,” said Southgate. “We’ve got this coming summer to look forward to and then a big chance because we host and we have to make sure we are there.
“That could be an incredibly exciting two-year period from the World Cup right through and a great opportunity for our players.”
Of course, Southgate knows only too well that England have fallen short before, even on home soil, as he missed a penalty in the Euro 96 semi-final shootout against Germany, and he has also seen the Three Lions look timid in qualifying, including three times in recent stalemates with Montenegro.
But he believes the “competition for places” England have in their squad now will guard against complacency.
That is certainly what his group A rivals believe, with Kosovo manager Bernard Challandes calling England “one of the best teams in the world” and Montenegro coach Ljubisa Tumbakovic saying they “are the absolute favourites of the group”.
They believe they are effectively playing for the second qualification spot, a goal seemingly shared by the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in their groups, too.
Ireland’s hopes of achieving even that appeared remote for a moment during Sunday’s draw when they were the third ball out of the bowl of third seeds.
For a normal tournament, that would have put them in group C, with the Netherlands and Germany, who were lurking menacingly in pot two because of their recent struggles.
But with Euro 2020 spread between 12 cities in 11 countries, UEFA had limited each qualification group to just two ‘host nations’, meaning Ireland could not join group C, as Amsterdam, Dublin and Munich are all venues in two summers’ time.
That meant the room’s groans turned to relieved laughter when the draw computer reallocated Ireland to group D, only for Northern Ireland to take their place in group C seconds later.
“It’s probably the most difficult group,” admitted a dejected-looking Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill.
His Ireland counterpart Mick McCarthy joked about “magic fingers on the laptop” but quickly reminded everyone that the “collective sigh of relief” was “premature” when you consider his side must face the higher-ranked sides of Switzerland and Denmark, as well as Georgia and Gibraltar.
For Scotland, the challenge is Belgium, Russia, Cyprus, Kazakhstan and San Marino, while Wales face Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary and Azerbaijan.
Asked if this means his side are playing for second, Scotland boss Alex McLeish said: “Yes, that would be the normal thinking, but Belgium have got to come to Glasgow and they’ll hopefully get a tougher game than last time – we’ve improved since then.”
That was in September, when Belgium won 4-0, but McLeish is determined to qualify without having to come through a play-off.
“I’m confident in the group of players we’ve got – we’ve got a fighting chance,” he said.
Wales boss Ryan Giggs was pleased his side were drawn in one of the five groups of five teams but said they must “climb the mountain again” to reach only their second European Championship finals, having impressively made the last four in 2016.
“Croatia will go into it as favourites but for the rest of us it’s going to be really competitive and, with the long trip to Azerbaijan, it’s not going to be easy, but it never is,” he said.
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