Gadsby’s England Chief Football Correspondent, Lee Gadsby Basannavar
Gareth Southgate will be satisfied with England’s draw at next summer’s European Championships. The Czech Republic, Croatia and either Israel, Norway, Serbia or Scotland will provide their opposition in Group D, and despite the strange coincidence of facing the last two sides to beat them in tournament qualifiers, England, playing all three first-round matches at Wembley, will be favourites to win the group.
England open their campaign on 14 June against Croatia. The World Cup finalists will be fully aware of England’s shaky tournament starts, and as the last team to defeat England in a home qualifier—that rainy Wembley night in 2007, crushing England’s Euro 2008 qualification with a stunning 3-2 victory in front of the Wally with the Brolley—how they would love to bookend England’s Wembley run since.
Top D and get F’d
Thanks to UEFA’s curious seeding pots, the draw threw up perhaps the most tantalizing group in the history of major tournaments, containing, incredibly, the winners of the last three. Group F’s inhabitants are World Champions France, European Champions Portugal and 2014 World Champions Germany. More like Group F****d, though as dramatic as it appears, again thanks to the 24-team format, it’s more likely ‘F’ will stand for “Fine” with all three reaching the last 16. Unfortunately, the real peril looks to be England’s—win Group D, they will face the team finishing second in Group F in the last 16 in Dublin. Here, basically, it’s top D and get F’d.
Second place offers some respite, a likely last-16 encounter with Sweden or Poland in Copenhagen, but then, barring mighty upsets elsewhere, they would face the original Group F winner in St. Petersburg. A familiar beast almost certainly awaits via either path.
The format of the competition means things are so convoluted and tentacle-like that, bizarrely (and some might say ineptly) England’s path of least resistance could in fact be finishing the group as one of the best third-placed teams, which would likely mean avoiding any Group F entanglements.
But if England start thinking like that, Iceland will surely find a way to face them in the last 16 again and inflict a similar result—so enough of trying to tie more knots around a tournament that is already tied in them. Besides, if this really is the Southgate revolution, perhaps England should pursue, not avoid, the beasts. After all, one curse has already been banished: penalties, check. Next, Ronaldo’s Portugal—how glorious it would be to despatch them after the torment of 2004 and 2006. And Germany…well, there might be a bit of previous there. Strangely, England and France have never met in the knockout stages of a tournament, so no score to settle, no traumatic burdens of the past; perhaps the World Champions would be England’s preferred opposition. It’s just a shame they’re the World Champions.
The bottom line is that for England to get back to a semifinal at Wembley—unless there are monumental upsets—they will have to do what we are reminded of ad nauseam: beat one, possibly two, of the world’s elite in the knockout stages of a major tournament for the first time since Germany in 1966.
It’s been a wretched, excruciating run, but England fans should keep holding on, reminding themselves that it’s not only good things that must come to an end.