By Neil Leverett

  • England thrashed Panama 6-1 in Nizhny Novgorod to secure place in last 16
  • Harry Kane nets hat-trick to lead golden boot race with five goals
  • Three Lions could top group with draw versus Belgium on Thursday
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, RUSSIA – After England booked their place in the last 16 after hammering Panama on Sunday, what did we learn in Nizhny Govgorod ahead of the Group G showdown with Belgium on Thursday?

 

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Three Lions optimism is steadily growing

Whisper it quietly, but hope in the national team is slowing being restored and what’s more, there is growing belief that England could actually exceed expectations for once, after so many glorious failures.

Let’s get thing into perspective; Panama and Tunisia are no world beaters. However, those two games have been a sorely-needed shot in the arm for English football and its’ long-suffering fans. The weekend win was England’s biggest in their World Cup history and the last time the Three Lions netted four in a game on the grandest footballing stage was when Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in ’66.

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For the time being, the calibre of opponent is irrelevant but the big tick for Gareth Southgate’s men after 180 minutes of football has been scoring eight times versus teams of a similar ilk who in the past the Three Lions may have struggled against.

After four years of crushing failure at the World Cup in Brazil four years ago and at Euro 2016, the journey to win fan trust is on the way to being earnt once more, an feat many thought that could have been lost forever.

There are far greater hurdles to overcome this summer as the knockout stages progress, but Southgate has brought real belief this current England incarnation can finally come close to ending 52 years of hurt.

 

Kane is again England’s main man

The man at the centre of such hyperbole has been Harry Kane who after Cristiano Ronaldo missed his spot-kick against Iran on Monday night, remains at the top of the scoring charts in the race for the golden boot.

His five goals already in the tournament may be sniffed at in the wake of England’s rather dubious opposition, but the faith the Spurs man gives his team-mates cannot be underestimated. Not since Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer, have English hopes been rested on such lofty shoulders must importantly seen their main talisman be able to deliver under pressure.

His hat-trick on Sunday saw the 24-year-old become only the third Englishman in history to bag the match ball, joining an elite band of only Lineker himself and Sir Geoff Hurst.

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The story of English football in the last 22 years could have been so different had it not been for the dreaded word ‘penalty’ which makes his two emphatic strikes from the 12-yard mark against Los Canaleros potentially seismic.

If indeed England are dealt the hand of spot kicks to determine their progress in Russia, Kane is one of the most clinical marksmen from the penalty spot in world football. Should that come to fruition – heaven forbid – England are in capable hands.

Where have we heard that before…

 

Sterling slips down pecking order

Whilst it would be hard to pick a name from England’s starting XI that failed to shine in Panamanian version of Wrestlemania, whereas the likes two-goal John Stones, Jesse Lingard and Ruben Loftus-Cheek stood out alongside Kane, Raheem Sterling did not grasp his opportunity with both hands.

It would be harsh to suggest the Manchester City forward had a poor game – supplying the initial saved header which resulted in Stones’ second goal, alongside his deft reverse pass to Lingard for the games’ third goal – in a game where the chances to fill English boots were there, Sterling was unable to break an international goal drought stretching over two years.

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Failure to find the net in 90 minutes may now result in his place in the starting XI come into serious question. With Marcus Rashford left on the bench for the duration in Nizhny but likely to start against Belgium on Thursday, the Manchester United star is champing at the bit and is now a real threat to the man in their cross-city rivalry domestically in the north-west.

Sterling’s finishing and final pass has always come under greater scrutiny in a Three Lions’ shirt, but with the business end of the tournament approaching England need to continue their recently-discovered killer instinct against far tougher opposition.

For the time being, Sterling does not belong in the that bracket. That does not mean however that he cannot make a big impact this summer. Indeed his raw pace and undoubted ability could see him become a real ace up Southgate’s sleeve in the latter stages of 90 – even 120 – minutes.

 

 

Young Lions are roaring

Sterling is perhaps the only exception who is not thriving in this young, exciting and bold new era for England. As documented, Stones is now a legitimate goal threat from set-pieces – as is his centre-back partner Harry Maguire – but with Kyle Walker alongside the duo, in defence the trio look like a unified unit at the back.

The ‘unified’ word has been bandied about pre-tournament but is this instance its seem there are no cliches to found with England. A final group game game against the Red Devils may be a bigger indicator of just how strong team belief is with a number of fringe players set to be unleashed later in the week, but there is a real sense such conjecture is not hot air.

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Kieran Trippier is another who has had a stunning opening two games at wing-back, with an added threat of set-piece delivery quickly becoming the biggest to his bow, but with Trent-Alexander Arnold waiting in the wings to show what he can bring to the table, England may soon become a-flush for options in the knockout stages.

 

First, or Second?

With England topping Group G going their final game against Belgium with both sides having scored eight and conceded two and goals apiece, the difference between Southgate and Roberto Martinez’s side is just the single yellow card which has the Three Lions top of the standings due to fair play co-efficient. It seems the perfect scenario. or is it?

Before the World Cup began, the chance to top the table was the preferable one with a likely route through the last 16 of Poland or Colombia in Round two, before a quarter-final tie with one of Mexico or Brazil possible.

With Germany’s progress still in doubt however, a remarkable clash between Die Mannschaft and Canarinho could now take place next weekend. Whilst a tie with either two would present a huge challenge, with France also on that side of the draw the opposite side of the bracket seems almost to good to be true.

If England were to top the group on Thursday, the rather tricky prospect of a face-off with Colombia lies in wait after Poland flopped in Group H. Whilst either Senegal or Japan would be tricky for the Three Lions alternatively, it is the route from their that seems far more appealing.

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Now Mexico or Switzerland could be the side that lie between England and a semi-final berth should they progress that far. That proposition seemed almost implausible pre-tournament but now has a very real chance of occurring. In short England could have to face Colombia, Brazil or Germany, and France if they are to reach the final in Moscow on July 15. Alternatively, they could play Japan, Mexico and then Croatia or Spain for a place in the World Cup final.

In 2006, England’s late concession to Sweden in the group stages saw Sven Goran Eriksson’s men play group winner Denmark instead of Senegal. Whilst Gerrard and co. breezed past the Danes, the African side knocked out the Swedes in golden goal extra time after coming up against a team simply stronger than them despite a lower finish. There is precedent that finishing second is not necessarily a bad thing.

Of course, there are no easy games in the knockout stages as England know all too well. Southgate has said his side will be playing for top spot, but their is the rather intriguing situation where they could effectively pick their route through the tournament – aside from their last 16 obstacle. In Kalingrad on Thursday, it may turn out that a loss could be a better result.

England play their final Group G game versus Belgium in Kaliningrad on Thursday at 7pm BST

 

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