Moscow, Russia | AFP | England manager Gareth Southgate is not fazed at the prospect of having to travel thousands of kilometres across Russia during the group stage of next year’s World Cup.
His side came out in Group G in Friday’s draw ceremony at the Kremlin State Palace in Moscow, along with Belgium, Tunisia and debutants Panama.
They will face Belgium in their final group game in Kaliningrad on Thursday, June 28, not far from their chosen tournament base, at Repino on the Baltic coast near St Petersburg.
But they begin almost 2,000 kilometres away against Tunisia in Volgograd — in a stadium built on one of the main sites of the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest episodes of the Second World War — on Monday, June 18.
That will be followed by a meeting with Panama in Nizhni Novgorod, 400 kilometres east of Moscow, on June 24.
“We knew that the maximum journey would be a couple of hours and we couldn’t be in three different time zones anyway, the way it was all prepared,” Southgate said in Moscow.
The England coach added that there are potential benefits that come with playing their first match four days after the competition begins on June 14.
“It is interesting to be starting slightly later, with what that means at the end of the season.
“We have got to get that period of recovery and freshness right. That needs a bit of working out now.”
The English Premier League season is due to finish on May 13, with the FA Cup final scheduled for May 19, giving Southgate plenty of time to work with his players prior to the tournament.
– Dealing with expectation –
While the logistical challenges are considerable, Southgate admitted his young side will also need to learn how to deal with the expectations placed on them after they were handed a seemingly favourable draw.
Belgium are a fearsome proposition, but England avoided the likes of holders Germany and Brazil, a source of relief even if they held both to goalless friendly draws last month.
Nobody in England will underestimate a Belgian side full of Premier League stars such as Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, but there will be confidence that they can finish in the top two.
That raises the temptation to look further forward, and if England qualify for the last 16, they would come up against a side from Group H, featuring Poland, Senegal, Colombia and Japan.
Yet, if they progress as runners-up, they would in theory be on a collision course to meet Germany in the last eight and then quite possibly Spain or Argentina after that.
Southgate, though, was quick to recall their failure even to qualify from their group at the 2014 World Cup, and their pitiful defeat against Iceland at Euro 2016 in France.
“I go back to the last two tournaments. We really have to be focused, make sure nothing is taken for granted, which in fairness I don’t think is what happened.
“We also have to be able to handle the expectation of being one of the favourites in the group.
“I think when we’ve just come in from two tournaments where Costa Rica knocked us out and then Iceland, it would be folly for us not to be serious about our preparation and make sure our mentality (is right), but also not being fearful of what might happen is an important balance to find.”
Southgate believes Belgium — managed by Roberto Martinez with Englishman Graeme Jones as his assistant — are among the favourites to win the trophy.
“Having played Brazil last month, I wasn’t disappointed to be missing out on that game in the group because I think they’re going to be one of the serious contenders,” said the 47-year-old.
“Having said that, I think Belgium will be, with the quality of players they’ve got, the way they’ve qualified, they are a really top team.”