Are England allowed to be optimistic yet? Their success at youth level has left the French, Germans and Spanish trying to unpack the secrets of St George’s Park, Holland and Italy have placed things into perspective by failing to make it to Russia next summer and an experimental line-up more than held its own in a goalless draw with Germany last Friday. So it’s official: England might not make a total show of themselves at the World Cup! Hip hip!
That, of course, represents something of a shift in tone since the era of headlines like ENGLAND EXPECTS before major tournaments. These days it’s more ENGLAND WILL SETTLE FOR A NICE PLEASANT RUN TO THE QUARTER-FINALS, WHICH ISN’T TOO MUCH TO ASK, ALL WE REALLY WANT IS TO MAINTAIN A BIT OF NATIONAL PRIDE AND DIGNITY (hmm, maybe there’s a reason I don’t do the headlines), which is a welcome departure from the bombast of the Golden Generation. This, ultimately, is a footballing nation still trying to piece together its sense of self-respect after a long string of very public failures and ridicule. England’s behaviour at the past few tournaments has been nothing short of farcical and no one in their right mind will be tipping them for glory next summer. Still, it’s nice to have a bit of hope and, while there’s plenty of room for improvement, there have been a few quietly encouraging signs recently.
Then again, it’s just over a month since England qualified for the World Cup with a win over Slovenia that was tedious enough to make the Wembley crowd seek entertainment in the form of paper aeroplanes. It was a weirdly low moment for Gareth Southgate’s side, World Cup qualification met with a collective shrug of the shoulders from the nation. Southgate, though, is trying to shake things up. Some senior players - your Chris Smallings, your Alex Oxlade-Chamberlains - have been put to one side for the time being. Youngsters have been promoted because of injuries and Southgate has given the impression that he knows how he wants to play. It might not work, it might turn out that suspicions over Southgate’s credentials are justified and the players just aren’t good enough technically or mentally, but at least it’s been possible to detect a sense of purpose in the past few days. It’s something to get behind while England work out where they are.
With England, though, it’s often the mood swings you have to watch. After the Slovenia game, it was open season on this team: how could they make football seem so dull, so bland? Indeed it’s mostly been that way since the Iceland game. But one friendly draw with an undercooked Germany, not long hot after the Under-17s became world champions, and you can’t help but wonder if ENGLAND SHOULD EXPECT. That optimism could take a kicking tonight, though. If you haven’t seen Brazil since the 7-1, you might want to adjust your expectations. Under the impressive Tite, this lot look nothing like the shambles that made an entire nation experience a nervous breakdown in 2014, so this might be one of those evenings when England have to keep things in perspective.
Kick-off: 8pm GMT.