The draw for the group stage of the World Cup in Russia is just around the corner and as sure as night follows day, England look likely to land the trickiest foursome possible.
Roy Hodgson’s team were humbled last time around in Brazil 2014, after being drawn in a stinker of a group alongside Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica. They picked up one point from three games and trundled back to England under something of a cloud.
England got a more favourable draw in 2010, of course, though they still struggled against the might of the US, Slovenia and Algeria, eventually progressing to the knockout phase where a rampant Germany and a dodgy linesman awaited them.
Things are different this time though – we’ve got Gareth Southgate at the helm, for starters and if there’s one guy who knows about shining at international tournaments, it’s the dude who blew it in the semi-finals of Euro ’96.
So what are the best possible draws England could face in Russia? Let’s go.
There will be plenty who point to hosts Russia as the ideal team to face from Pot 1, which consists of all the highest FIFA ranked teams. Russia aren’t there on merit but they shouldn’t be taken lightly and, South Africa aside, all of the host nations have advanced to the knockout phase. England struggled to break them down at Euro 2016 and ended up scoring a dour 1-1 draw and a hostile atmosphere would await them this time round. Given the England team’s previous mental fragility, that might be better avoided.
That’s where Poland come in. England have a great record against the Poles, having lost just once in 19 encounters. They won their last meeting back in 2013 and, despite Poland boasting an improved pedigree of late, they remain as untested and unproven as England on international level, with few in the way of notable scalps to their name. More importantly, key striker Robert Lewandowski isn’t having the best of seasons. So far, at least.
Pot 3 might have a couple of familiar faces in the form of Iceland, Denmark and Sweden but England don’t have a great record against any of those sides. There will be those who might suggest Iran are the pick of the bunch but loaded is not so sure.
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz has crafted a well-drilled team who went 10 games unbeaten in qualifying and came within seconds of picking up a 0-0 draw with Argentina at the last World Cup. Queiroz spent several years as Sir Alex Ferguson’s deputy at Manchester United too, meaning he knows the English game back to front. A match against Iran could end in the kind of dour draw witnessed between England and Algeria at World Cup 2010.
Instead, the relatively inexperienced Tunisia look the best bet. England scored a morale-boosting 2-0 opening win over the North African nation at their last World Cup in 1998 and Tunisia’s squad is largely based in their homeland, save for a couple of minor stars including Sunderland flop Wahbi Khazri. Despite impressing in the African Cup Of Nations, that group could find it tough going here. They are certainly a more appealing prospect than the attack-minded Senegal or Egypt.
Saudi Arabia might be the lowest ranked team in the hat according to FIFA, but they could prove a slightly trickier prospect than Panama, who are heading to their first World Cup and are damn lucky to be there, in the first place.
Panama claimed qualification with their very last group game, a 2-1 win over an already-qualified Costa Rica which came via an opener that probably didn’t even cross the line. When combined with USA’s shock loss to Jamaica, it’s clear to see that Panama were a little more fortuitous than most to be there – but that’s football. Fingers crossed England get drawn against them.