The optimists will say it’s coming home. The pessimists will point towards recent results as a reason to write off the nation’s chances before the first ball is kicked. Either way, England and their much-maligned leader Gareth Southgate are under enormous pressure to deliver in Qatar.
From reaching the semi-finals in Russia four years ago to falling at the very last hurdle at Euro 2020, the Three Lions will undoubtedly be desperate to keep that theme of going one better alive and place a second World Cup trophy next to the Jules Rimet of 1966 in the rather bare cabinet.
Very few can deny the electrifying talent at Southgate’s disposal at St George’s Park, but getting his crop of starlets to gel and deliver for 90 minutes on the pitch has been easier said than done in recent months, and an abysmal time of things in the Nations League has not led to unwavering support of the manager’s tactics and ideas just before the most important tournament of his career so far.
As well as fighting for international glory, Southgate has also accepted that his contract will not save him from potentially getting the boot if England cannot find a formula for success in the Middle East, but the Three Lions have proved that they can mix with the biggest of the big boys under the 52-year-old.
Having watched the women’s team captivate the nation with their Euro 2022 triumph on home soil, it is now up to the men’s team – who many argue is the most talented for years – to replicate their counterparts’ unforgettable success over the winter.
Here, we previews England’s chances at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
A relatively friendly set of fixtures awaits the Three Lions in Group B, as they prepare to do battle with Iran, Wales and the United States next month.
Southgate’s side open proceedings versus Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium on November 21 and then have four days to recover before tackling the United States at the Al Bayt Stadium.
A battle of the Brits will then take place with Wales on the final group matchday on November 29, with England no doubt eyeing top spot in the section.
November 21 England vs. Iran (1pm, Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan)
November 25: England vs. United States (7pm, Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor)
November 29: Wales vs. England (7pm, Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan)
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
It took until the final matchday for England to confirm qualification for the 2022 World Cup, but the Three Lions only experienced a couple of minor wobbles on their way to a first-placed finish in UEFA Group I.
Southgate’s side stormed to top spot with eight wins and two draws from their 10 matches to qualify as the only team to avoid defeat in the six-team groups – the third time in a row England have progressed without losing a game – although the likes of Serbia, France, Switzerland and Belgium also went unbeaten in the five-team sections.
Coming up against Andorra, San Marino, Poland, Albania and Hungary, England won each of their first five matches against their qualifying opponents, although their 4-0 win over the latter in Budapest was marred by incidences of racist abuse from the home crowd.
Draws with Poland and Hungary either side of a 5-0 thumping of Andorra did leave the door ajar for England’s adversaries to potentially upset the apple cart, but Southgate’s men would respond by hitting 15 goals in their final two group games.
Teaching San Marino a footballing lesson in a 10-0 demolition ensured a place at the World Cup finals for the seventh consecutive time for England, who racked up 39 goals – a record high for the nation – and conceded just three across their 10 group games.
Out of all the UEFA nations involved in qualifying, no team could match England’s remarkable tally of 39 strikes, and three goals conceded represented the best defensive record in the six-team groups – Italy and Switzerland shipped just two in their five-team section, though.
Coincidentally, England also won eight games and drew two during qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, but they only scored 18 goals in those matches, with Southgate’s crop more than doubling that tally this time around.
England’s ardent fans have already learned not to get ahead of themselves before a major tournament, but on the back of two noteworthy results in the World Cup and Euros, plenty have dared to dream.
However, any shreds of optimism that Southgate’s critics may have had is surely absent after England’s horrendous Nations League campaign saw them relegated to League B, and the Three Lions will enter the World Cup having failed to win any of their last six games.
Scheduling four Nations League matches in quick succession after a gruelling domestic season was not a genius move, but England were not the only ones falling victim to the unforgiving fixture list, and Southgate’s men did not live up to expectations in League A.
England only took two points from four matches in June and were torn to shreds in a 4-0 defeat to Hungary at Molineux, marking their worst home loss for 94 years, and their dismal streak continued in a 1-0 loss to Italy three months later.
By this point, England had only found the back of the net once in the Nations League through Harry Kane’s penalty against Germany, failing to score in open play in five successive matches before Die Mannschaft made the trip to Wembley.
Southgate’s side would pick an ideal time to end their profligate streak in a pulsating 3-3 draw, but failure to beat Iran on the opening matchday would see England equal an unwanted national record of seven games without victory – first set all the way back in 1958 – which would be an unwelcome blot on the 52-year-old’s notebook.
Goalkeepers: Jordan Pickford (Everton), Nick Pope (Newcastle United), Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal)
Defenders: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Conor Coady (Everton, loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers), Eric Dier (Tottenham Hotspur), Harry Maguire (Manchester United), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), John Stones (Manchester City), Kieran Trippier (Newcastle United), Kyle Walker (Manchester City), Ben White (Arsenal)
Midfielders: Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund), Conor Gallagher (Chelsea), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Mason Mount (Chelsea), Kalvin Phillips (Manchester City), Declan Rice (West Ham United)
Forwards: Phil Foden (Manchester City), Jack Grealish (Manchester City), Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), James Maddison (Leicester City), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), Raheem Sterling (Chelsea), Callum Wilson (Newcastle United)
STAR PLAYER – HARRY KANE
With countless individual accolades to his name but no major team trophy to go alongside them, Harry Kane enters the 2022 World Cup wearing the armband for England and looking to further cement his place in Three Lions folklore.
The 29-year-old has netted 51 goals for his country down the years – only Ellen White (52) and Wayne Rooney (53) have more – so replicating his Golden Boot-winning showing of six goals from the 2018 edition would see the Tottenham man become his nation’s all-time leading scorer.
It is easy to forget the stellar start Kane has had to the Premier League season given the form of Erling Braut Haaland and Tottenham’s recent struggles, but the England captain still has 11 goals from 14 Premier League games so far this term and is growing restless for a major trophy.
Kane has committed himself to Tottenham for the past couple of transfer windows despite widespread interest from elsewhere, and Bayern Munich will seemingly be the next giants to try their luck as they look to fill the Robert Lewandowski-sized void.
However, any talk surrounding Kane’s future or possible contract renewal with Tottenham are on hold for the time being, as the prolific forward seeks to engineer a memorable World Cup campaign for the Three Lions.
MANAGER – GARETH SOUTHGATE
Only three months after it was reported that he had no interest in leaving his role with the Under-21s to take over from Roy Hodgson at the helm, Gareth Southgate OBE was thrust into the limelight in the wake of Sam Allardyce’s acrimonious departure.
Over the past six years, Southgate has won 48, drawn 14 and lost 14 of his 76 international matches in charge of England, who have hit new heights and new lows under the former defender.
Seeking to restore order to Wembley in the wake of the English football corruption scandal, Southgate has seen a host of individual accolades come his way after guiding the Three Lions to memorable finishes at their last two major tournaments, being named the Coach of the Year at the BBC Sports Personality awards in 2018 and 2021.
A semi-final finish at the 2018 World Cup preceded penalty-shootout heartbreak at the Euro 2020 final – Southgate knows all about that from his playing days with England of course – but the 52-year-old is in his own elite crowd of national team managers.
Only Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson also reached the semi-finals of the World Cup with England, and no manager before Southgate took the Three Lions all the way to the final of the European Championships, but it has not been all plain sailing for the former Middlesbrough boss.
Southgate’s squad selections, tactics, starting lineups and substitutions will forever be scrutinised under a microscope, and plenty feel that his powers over this England squad are starting to wane, and he is under no illusions that his contract until 2024 will not protect him if the Three Lions flatter to deceive in Qatar.
WORLD CUP RECORD
Best finish: Winners (1966)
Many have tried and failed to replicate England’s 1966 World Cup success in front of the late Queen Elizabeth II, and only three of the starting XI from that final win over Germany – Sir Bobby Charlton, Sir Geoff Hurst and George Cohen – are still around to watch the current crop go for glory.
Fifty-six years on from beating the Germans 4-2 in a highly controversial Wembley encounter, England only have two semi-final finishes to go next to their Jules Rimet trophy, one in 1990 under Sir Bobby Robson and the other in Russia four years ago.
England were not FIFA members until the 1950 World Cup and subsequently missed the first three editions, and they alternated between group-stage and quarter-final exits in 1950, 1954, 1958 and 1962 before going all the way.
The defence of their World Cup crown then ended in the quarter-finals in 1970 before they failed to qualify at all in 1974 or 1978, and a similar fate befell them in 1994, but they have since made it to the finals seven times on the bounce.
Only one of England’s last six World Cup appearances has ended in the group stage, and the Three Lions travel to Qatar with 29 wins, 21 draws and 19 losses under their belt from 69 games in the tournament in total.