England will hope to get off to a good start at Russia 2018 by defeating Tunisia in their Group G opener in Volgograd on Monday (7pm live on BBC1).
The feeling around the England team seems to have changed as the World Cup has got closer. The apathy engendered by poor performances in their last two major tournament appearances has gradually given way to a realistically grounded form of optimism.
This is not the tub-thumping, England-can-go-all-the-way optimism of the years of the so-called golden generation. It is a variety that recognises how solid a job Gareth Southgate has done since taking charge towards the start of the qualifying process, and the progress he seems to be making towards forming a team who play decent, soundly structured football.
England touch down in Russia on the back of a 10-match unbeaten run, including victories over Nigeria and Costa Rica in their two pre-tournament friendlies. They have conceded just three times in a sequence that also included 0-0 draws with Brazil and Germany.
The way the draw has worked out has also been relatively kind to Southgate’s side. Group G is paired with Group H in terms of the first knockout round, and in that group, only Poland are ranked higher than England in the FIFA rankings. A quarter-final place therefore looks possible, although that would likely signal the end of their run given that Brazil or Germany would be their probable opponents depending on which side of the draw they end up on.
None of that will come into play unless they can first do what is expected of them and progress from Group G alongside top seeds Belgium. Victories against Tunisia and Panama, the group’s weaker teams, would all but certainly see them through prior to the final matchday, when England and Belgium can be expected to square off in a playoff for top spot.
Tunisia will, though, have designs on causing an upset in the group opener. They are back at the World Cup for the first time since 2006 and have reasons to be confident of giving a decent impression of themselves. They progressed unbeaten through their final qualifying group in Africa and have produced a series of solid displays in subsequent friendlies.
Tunisia were able to do a pretty good job of frustrating Spain for much of their match in Krasnodar last Saturday, where they held out until the 84th minute before finally conceding the decisive goal. That confirmed the suspicion that they will be a side who seek to sit back and strike on the break, at least against England and Belgium.
With that in mind, the absence of injured qualifying top scorer Youssef Msakni is a blow, leaving coach Nabil Maaloul without a single striker who has reached double figures for the national team. Former Sunderland attacking midfielder Wahbi Khazri is capable of providing a creative spark, while the pace of Dijon’s Naim Sliti could be a decent outlet, but Tunisia are not a side whose counter-attacking potential should significantly worry England.
It will be the ability of Southgate’s side to break down what is likely to be determined and solidly organised defensive block that will dictate the outcome of Monday’s match. In the friendly win over Nigeria, he employed Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard as advanced central midfielders to good effect, with their movement causing the Nigerian defence a number of problems, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see them line up in the same positions against Tunisia.
With Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane (who has scored eight times in his last seven appearances for the national team) offering a varied threat up top and the wing-backs pushing forward, England should have enough attacking weaponry to at least score the single goal that is likely to be sufficient to see them begin the World Cup with a win.
Twenty years ago, England kicked off France 98’ with a 2-0 victory over Tunisia; a similar result should be expected on Monday.