England v Tunisia – Victory or it’s curtains for the Three Lions

There is no question that England’s last two major tournaments have represented the nation’s worst humiliations of recent times.

The common denominator of disaster was England’s failure to win their opening game.

Last time out, in Euro 2016, England started their campaign with a 1-1 draw against Russia – a side England really should have beaten comfortably.

That game set the tone for the rest of the Euros, with England fortuitously sneaking through to the last 16 before being embarrassed by Iceland.

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In the tournament previous to that, the 2014 World Cup saw England fail to even qualify for the last 16. They had a tough start against Italy, but a loss there immediately put pressure on England to beat Uruguay.

They didn’t, and a goalless draw against Costa Rica further illustrated just how much England have a tendency to crumble under pressure.

The World Cup of 2006 remains the last time England won an opening fixture in an international tournament, as David Beckham’s free kick proved enough to dispatch Paraguay in Frankfurt.

The Three Lions went on to finish top, and would at least have the accolade of going out unbeaten, in a penalty shootout to Portugal.

Indeed, the history of the World Cup is awash with teams that failed to meet expectation after a shock defeat in the first round of fixtures.

Amongst the more notorious examples are the defeats of France, Argentina and Spain, to Senegal (in 2002), Cameroon (in 1990) and Netherlands (in 2014) respectively.

All of those sides came into the tournament as reigning champions, further illustrating the need to play positively from the outset, but without arrogance.

It is this balance which England must find in the months prior to the upcoming World Cup, in order to break their twelve-year opening day hoodoo.

At present, the World Cup spreads suggest that England are amongst the peripheral contenders for glory, and to justify that, Gareth Southgate’s England squad has no choice but to make a winning start against Tunisia.

While England know that their high FIFA rank will give them an advantage in every qualifying tournament, their northern African opponents have been absent from the World Cup for twelve years.

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Though Tunisia are inferior in every department on paper, it is the will and hunger to win on grass which truly matters.

The Tunisians are obvious winners in that regard, and thus, England must counter with responsible, positive play.

While this does not constitute ‘route one’ football, there must certainly be a greater sense of purpose, which was entirely absent from England’s verbose and disjointed passing game, which utterly ruined Euro 2016 as a spectacle.

Should England somehow fail to win their opening fixture, only a victory over Panama could keep the Three Lions from disbanding and holding open auditions for the Euro 2020 qualifiers.

The good news for England, however, is that since 2002, England’s have won in the second game of a tournament on five occasions out of a possible seven. They have also gone on to proceed every time.

Although beating Panama should be a formality, it is ultimately the third game – against Belgium – that acts as a true yardstick for England’s chances beyond the group stage.

As the team drawn from pot 1 in December’s draw, Belgium are favourites to win the group. That stance is given further backing, when England’s record against non-hosting teams drawn from a higher pot is taken into account.

The World Cup of 2002 remains the most recent occasion on which England have beaten a higher-ranked team in the group stage of a major tournament, when David Beckham’s Sapporo heroics against Argentina won the day.

England owe it to themselves to beat a higher-ranked opponent in a major tournament.

With further expansions planned for future tournaments, kickstarted by the possibility of forty-eight teams participating in the World Cup of 2022, England’s odds only look like lengthening in the long run.

For that reason, amongst others, the future of England for the next generation could well be decided over the course of just 270 short minutes this summer.

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