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England: Harry Kane carries the weight of Three Lions expectations

England have probably been the most frustrating international football team in the world since the turn of the millennium, whether you're a die-hard or not.

In among a slew of fruitless quarter-final appearances, the Three Lions have suffered the embarrassment of failing to qualify for Euro 2008, an early exit at the hands of little-fancied Iceland at Euro 2016 and they were beaten to a place in the knockout stages of the 2014 World Cup by Costa Rica.

Considering the players England have had at their disposal for the past couple of decades, it's an underwhelming return to say the least.

The squads have been littered with Champions League winners and vital components to Premier League conquering sides, but, the pressure of wearing the Three Lions has appeared to weigh down England's stars.

Still, after another near-perfect qualifying campaign, Gareth Southgate has led England to the World Cup in Russia and despite falling to 13th in the FIFA World Rankings and failing to make a World Cup semi-final in 28 years, England's elite are seventh favourites to win the whole thing.*

England’s World Cup squad

Goalkeepers: Butland, Pickford, Pope

Defenders: Walker, Stones, Maguire, Rose, Alexander-Arnold, Young, Cahill, Jones, Trippier

Midfielders: Henderson, Dier, Alli, Lingard, Sterling, Loftus-Cheek, Delph

Forwards: Kane, Vardy, Rashford, Welbeck

How did they qualify?

England booked their place at Euro 2016 with an extraordinary 10 wins from 10 games, but their humbling exit to Iceland proved that qualification form isn't a direct indicator of tournament success.

This time around, the Three Lions once again excelled on their journey to a major tournament with an unbeaten record of eight wins and two draws, finishing eight points clear of Slovakia and Scotland.

Sam Allardyce got the ball rolling for England with a 1-0 win in Slovakia, but the since fired former-Everton boss was forced to resign just 67 days into his reign after a Daily Telegraph sting.

While Allardyce left his post as the only England manager in history with a 100% win rate, Under-21s manager Gareth Southgate was forced to pick up the pieces.

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A frustrating 0-0 stalemate away to Slovenia and an injury-time equaliser against Scotland to draw 2-2 were the only blemishes on an otherwise professional, albeit mundane, job in qualification.

England only conceded three goals in qualifying - only Spain can say the same - and they managed to score 18 times in their 10 games. From the European group winners, only Iceland scored less with 16. Germany and Belgium managed 43!

Harry Kane led the line with five goals and after outscoring Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in 2017 with 56 goals in 52 games, he needs to do more.

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Key men

Over the last 20 years, England have boasted excellent defensive talent. Ashley Cole was arguably the best left-back in the world for a decade while the likes of Sol Campbell, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand were some of the best centre-backs of their generation.

You can take that a step further with Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in midfield, commonly regarded as two of the greatest to ever grace the Premier League. But England's strongest asset now lies in attack.

Kane is, naturally, England's focal point after his record-setting 2017 and he bagged 30 goals in total in the league last season. Raheem Sterling was considered overpriced at £50m just over two years ago, but he has proved his doubters wrong scoring 18 goals and assisting 11 en route to a Premier League title. He's improved considerably under Pep Guardiola.

England will need big performances from the likes of Dele Alli and John Stones if they are to fulfill their potential in Russia. All four men have shown at different stages of their careers they have top-level quality - can they show it when it matters most?

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One to watch - Marcus Rashford

It's not set in stone that Marcus Rashford will have a starting spot in the England side, but there is little denying the Manchester United forward is one of the most exciting young players in world football.

At 20-years-old, the Manchester-born forward has already made more than 120 appearances for the Red Devils and has scored 32 goals in the process.

His electric pace coupled with a fearless, direct nature makes him such an exciting watch, but moreover, he can unlock doors that only a handful of players have the keys to.

He's found his playing time at Old Trafford rather inconsistent thanks to Romelu Lukaku's arrival and his deployment out wide, but there is no doubt he is a major threat to any country in Russia.

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The manager

Southgate doesn't carry the same illustrious name that some of his contemporaries in Russia might, but he's certainly started to win over England fans.

After initially impressing as Middlesbrough boss, things soon went south as Boro were relegated from the Premier League and Southgate was relieved of his duties in 2009.

Four years later, he took over the England Under-21 side and at the 2015 Under-21 European Championships, the Three Lions finished dead last. Not a good omen for tournament football.

However, the 47-year-old did provide the senior side with a host of exciting youngsters to help them bounce back from the Euro 2016 heartache and, following the Allardyce debacle, he stepped in temporarily before earning the job full-time.

Since then, it's been impressive to see Southgate use his tactical nous to get the best out of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in a more central role - although the Ox now misses out through injury - and inserting the fast and powerful Kyle Walker into the back three seems a smart move.

England look much more flexible and well suited to their 3-5-2 formation in friendlies with Holland and Italy; Southgate deserves plenty of credit for that.

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Potential route to the final

Most England fans will be tempted to skip over this section completely (please don't!), but they actually stand a decent chance of making it to their comfort zone of the quarter-finals barring any spectacular England-esque failings.

The fact that England play Belgium last in Group G gives the Three Lions a great chance to put six points on the board against Tunisia and Panama - two teams England would be expected to beat - before fighting it out for top spot in the group.

Whichever of the top two spots they finish in, they'd be fancied to overcome the opposition from Group H, which features Colombia, Japan, Poland and Senegal.

Should England top the group, a win over likely opponents Colombia or Poland would set up a last-eight clash against either the winner of Group E or the runner-up of Group F. Seeing as Brazil are the hot favourites to win Group E ahead of Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia, and the fact they'd more than likely dispose of Mexico, Sweden or South Korea, chances are Brazil would await Southgate's men.

If England somehow beat Brazil, all of Spain, France and European champions Portugal are possibilities and should they shock the world and make the final, it could be a 1966 rematch with reigning world champions Germany.

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Expert opinion

Kevin Garside, chief sports writer at The i newspaper

"Southgate’s selection was at least his own. He took no account of sentiment or reputation. He had clear rules about playing regularly in the Premier League. The players understood that and he stuck by it.

"As the youngest England squad since 1962, Southgate is clearly trying to draw a line under the past, and set a positive tone. The inclusion of Trent Alexander-Arnold is a calculated risk and a worthy one given the 19-year-old’s performances at right-back for Liverpool.

"And the return of Ruben Loftus-Cheek to the midfield after his stellar debut against Germany shows Southgate is going to Russia on the front foot, and with his best players.

"It is 52 years since England’s only World Cup win, 28 years since they last contested a World Cup semi-final. As Gary Neville noted in an interview with the Daily Mail, reaching the last eight would be representative.

"The qualities of Germany, France, Spain, Brazil and Belgium attest to the difficulty in going beyond the quarter-finals. However, this game is played in the head as much as the feet. If Southgate can imbue the group with confidence he has real pace in the squad, players who can make a difference, including Sterling, Kane, Loftus-Cheek, Alli and Rashford, plus options on the bench.

"So who knows? Carpe diem, as the mantra went in ancient Rome, seize the day."

Odds

They couldn’t, could they? Gareth Southgate’s side are 16/1 to win their second World Cup.*
In Kane they possess one of the world’s best strikers and his Golden Boot odds of 16/1* reflect his status as one of the most feared forwards in Russia.

The Spurs star had a miserable Euro 2016 but if he hits the ground running against Tunisia and Panama then England have a chance to go far.

A quarter-final place is a realistic target especially with Dele Alli (40/1)* and Raheem Sterling (50/1)* supporting Kane up front.

*Please note these odds are correct at time of publishing and could be subject to change.

**GiveMeSport brings you this article in collaboration with William Hill

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