So the big guns are all lining up and we are set for some quarter final pairings over the coming days, aren’t we.
I spoke about the politics of having the games in Qatar in last week’s column and this time around, I’m going to raise another hare…I want England to beat France in Saturday’s quarter-finals.
I know this can sound heretical coming from the pen of an Irishman but in truth I have a lot of English friends and I also feel we have a bigger interest once they are still in the tournament.
Quite whether I could stand their boasting were they to replicate ’66 is another matter but for the moment I am backing them to cause a surprise and put out the holders at the quarter-final stage.
Yes Frane have Mbappe and Giroud is defying preconceptions about his limitations by becoming the most prolific goalscorer for his country ahead of such greats as Henry and Fontaine but England have a wealth of young talent who are merging brilliantly with the older heads in their squad.
They have a dreadful record against teams ceded higher than them since 1966 in that they have won only once – against Argentina when Beckham scored a penalty in ’02 – while losing 111 times in that period.
They have had their golden generations in the past 20 years or so but seem to fall at the high altar of expectation that follows them through the red-top media. You can almost bet your bottom dollar that their teams will trip up. This time though I sense it is a bit different as Gareth Southgate has brought together a fine squad… and given youth its fling.
There is one big question he has to answer this weekend – will he trust the side and the format he has sent out so far or will he revert to type and bring in an extra defender as he has done previously when England face the better teams?
He has a fabulous record but I believe it would be better if he threw caution to the wind… he failed to do that against Croatia in the last World Cup and again in the European final when he got done by a very ordinary Italian team, which incidentally failed to qualify for this World Cup.
With a strong spine in his team and with Kyle Walker designated to try to curtail Mbappe, he should leave it to the Bellinghams, Fodens, Sakas and Rashfords (not to mention Kanes) to get the business done.
If he does then they are only two games away from glory – and yes, that would pose a problem for us Irish people looking in. But let’s take it week by week and I think what is helping England this time around is the young set don’t feel the pressure like the Rooneys, Gerrards, Beckhams and Lampards of yesteryear did when failing to advance to the serious end of competitons.
As I write there are still big games and big names to light up the rest of this competition and if it does nothing else, it is certainly shortening the run in to Christmas.
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