As England’s footballers continue to rewrite the way they are perceived around the world, from the Spanish sports daily Marca dubbing Harry Kane “the Hurricane” to La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy noting “a security and spectacularity that historically they never usually have”, Gareth Southgate has been encouraging his players to soak it in and enjoy the moment. It was time, according to the manager, to “get the music on and have a couple of beers”.
Only a couple, mind. Zaliv, the one nightclub in Repino, is open late only on Fridays and Saturdays and not, perhaps, a typical haunt for England’s players, given Frankie Boyle’s description of it on his BBC documentary before the tournament as “last orders at your cousin’s wedding”.
The team chose instead to stay at their hotel, toasting their early qualification for the last 16. And why not when they are even getting praise, of sorts, from an old enemy? “It is time for all of Scotland to be afraid,” according to the Daily Record, which noted England would regret it for ever if Southgate – “a bit of a dry lunch, but so what?” – did not get his hands on the “big lump of glorious gold almost winking in their direction, beckoning them to step forward and claim it for their own”.
At which point it is probably worth reiterating that England’s victories so far have come against moderate sides and, to be picky, that Southgate’s men have not managed a clean sheet in either match, with some legitimate misgivings about how they might cope at the back against more efficient opponents.
All the same, it does not feel outlandish to report a new wave of optimism inside the camp. Southgate has never gone as far as saying England are here to bring the trophy home. But he has never said it cannot happen, either. “I’ve said all along I don’t want to limit what they [the players] feel is possible,” he said. “That’s still how I feel.” And it is safe to assume Kyle Walker, for one, might have revised his position that it would need “a miracle”. Plenty of luck, perhaps, and a spirit of togetherness and durability that has been conspicuous by its absence during the undistinguished sequence of only six knockout victories in major tournaments since 1966. But not necessarily a miracle.
England can certainly be emboldened by the fact they have won their opening two fixtures for only the third time since 1950, that the team are playing with energy and effervescence and that Kane, in particular, seems absolutely determined to leave his mark on this tournament.
Kane’s five-goal haul against Tunisia and Panama would already have been enough to win the Golden Boot outright in 1962 and jointly with Miroslav Klose in 2006 and Thomas Müller in 2010. He is one short of Mario Kempes’s winning total in 1978, Paolo Rossi in 1982, Gary Lineker in 1986, Totò Schillaci in 1990, Hristo Stoichkov and Oleg Salenko in 1994 and Davor Suker in 1998. Kane gives the impression he is as driven by these awards as Cristiano Ronaldo, so much so that Southgate wondered whether his captain might “have the hump” for being substituted against Panama. For Kane, it is almost an obsession to see his name at the top of the scoring charts.
All of which might warrant a delicate conversation if Southgate, as he appears to be leaning, has any plans to leave Kane out of the match against Belgium on Thursday that will determine which of the two teams, both already qualified, goes through as Group G winners.
Southgate, choosing his words carefully, seemed to recognise that might not go down well with his captain when he said: “Obviously it will be very important for Harry [to go for the Golden Boot]. He’s sitting proudly at the top. He’s gone ahead of some major names in English football history in terms of World Cup goals and that should make him incredibly proud. But he also knows the team is the most important thing and we have to make decisions that are right for the team. I always have to balance what’s right for the squad.”
That suggests Southgate is contemplating keeping him back for England’s first knockout tie, either in Rostov on Monday or Moscow the following day. Kane, of course, has let it be known he does not want a rest. Yet Southgate has also said that his priority is to look after some of the players who have not featured so far and, more than once, he has mentioned “the harmony” of the group. Steven Gerrard once referred to the England camp as a “five-star prison” and, behind the gates of the team hotel, Southgate is aware of the potential for the non-playing members of his squad to start feeling down and that, in turn, to create problems.
“We have to consider everything,” Southgate said, noting his use of substitutes in the 6-1 defeat of Panama. “I felt it was important for [Jamie] Vardy, [Fabian] Delph and [Danny] Rose, who have trained so well and been such an important part of the group. There were four or five others I’d have liked to get on the pitch. I have to think through all those things – the competition for places, the players who need match minutes and keeping the unity of the squad.”
Belgium will definitely make widespread changes, with Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku among the players expected to be rested, and in Southgate’s case there are four outfield players – Danny Welbeck, Phil Jones, Gary Cahill and Trent Alexander-Arnold – who have not played a single minute. Dele Alli hopes to be fit again and Kieran Trippier will be closely monitored after being substituted, as a precaution, against Panama.
By the time the game kicks off, England will also have a much better idea of the pros and cons of finishing first or second and the best route to avoid a potential quarter-final showdown with Germany or Brazil. It may work out better in the long run to go through as runners-up in a group where England and Belgium are currently separated only by their bookings count. Nobody, however, should believe England, currently top, will go to Kaliningrad with the specific intention of surrendering that position.
“For our country, that would be a very difficult mindset to have,” Southgate said. “We want to win every game of football we go into. I don’t know how we would go into a game not wanting to win and play well, so I think that’s dangerous territory if we start trying to plot and predict where we might end up.”
Besides, if there is one lesson from Euro 2016 it is that England should not be so cocky to look any further than their first knockout tie, against Japan, Senegal or Colombia. “We had a really favourable draw, we all thought, in the last tournament [against Iceland] and it didn’t work out that way,” Southgate said. “We just have to keep playing as well as we can, keep preparing the team the right way, keep the momentum and I have to keep the squad involved. That’s the one thing I think is really important.”