Vying for a place in the World Cup quarter-finals, England and last-16 opponents Senegal go head-to-head at Al Bayt Stadium on Sunday. After Gareth Southgate’s side topped Group B by beating Wales, a first-ever meeting between the nations sees the Three Lions tackle the Lions of Teranga, who made it through to the knockout rounds thanks to a crucial intervention from their captain. Defying their doubters again, England’s second-half showing in Tuesday’s final group game saw them not only sweep aside their Welsh neighbours, but also reach the last 16 of Qatar 2022 as Group B winners. They struck twice within 98 seconds at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, with Marcus Rashford breaking the deadlock via a 50th-minute free kick, before Phil Foden netted the second soon after. A rejuvenated Rashford later added the final flourish with a third – his nation’s 100th World Cup goal. Following an uninspiring performance in their draw with the United States just a few days before, the Three Lions more closely resembled the side that tore ruthlessly into Iran last week, and such attacking intent has confirmed their credentials to match recent runs at major finals.
Under oft-maligned manager Gareth Southgate, they ventured to the World Cup’s final four in 2018 before falling just short on home soil at last year’s Euros, so certainly have a track-record to support hopes of claiming a first global title since 1966. Now set to meet Group A runners-up Senegal in Al Khor, England have yet to lose in 20 matches against African opposition, so Southgate’s current crop surely start as favourites to progress on Sunday. Their quest for an elusive second World Cup started in the aftermath of an awful run of results through 2022 – during which time they were relegated from the top tier of UEFA’s Nations League – but a return to form for Manchester United pair Rashford and Harry Maguire has played its part in building momentum behind their Qatari campaign. Despite their near misses, England have also accrued plenty of tournament experience over the past few years, so will kick off their last-16 clash brimful of confidence too.
Senegal should not lack in that most precious of commodities either, as they arrived in the Middle East as African champions and have since negotiated safe passage to the knockout phase for just a second time. Edging out Ecuador in a winner-takes-all contest, they were indebted to captain Kalidou Koulibaly for his 70th-minute winner at Khalifa International Stadium on Tuesday. The centre-back’s controlled volley was required after Ismaila Sarr’s first-half penalty had been equalised by their South American opponents, and Aliou Cisse’s side ultimately backed up a straightforward victory over Qatar. The latter result came after a loss to the Netherlands in their first fixture. Cisse, supported by assistant El Hadji Diouf – another hero of Senegal’s legendary 2002 campaign – now aims to lead his nation into the quarter-finals; perhaps setting up an emotional re-match with France, who they slayed in the finals’ opening game some 20 years ago.
The former Birmingham City midfielder may be without star man Sadio Mane in Qatar, but since his appointment in 2015 has nurtured a spirited and tactically aware squad – the bulk of which lifted a first Africa Cup of Nations trophy in February, after winning the final on penalties. While African teams have lost eight of nine World Cup knockout matches against European opponents to date – the sole exception being a Senegalese win over Sweden – if it comes to spot-kicks the Lions of Teranga could therefore hold a distinct edge over their English counterparts, who have so often seen shootouts result in painful failure. While Gareth Southgate inevitably enjoyed having his faith repaid by Kyle Walker, Phil Foden, Jordan Henderson and Marcus Rashford – all of whom were introduced to the starting XI against Wales – their success presents England’s head coach with something of a quandary to resolve.
Not only will he consider returning Kieran Trippier, Bukayo Saka and long-time favourite Raheem Sterling to the lineup on Sunday, but there remains an outside possibility of switching from a back four to a flexible three-man defence. In either case, Borussia Dortmund star Jude Bellingham – who became the second-youngest English player to reach 20 senior caps last time out – should join Declan Rice and Henderson in a central-midfield trio. Both Kalvin Phillips and James Maddison remain short of full fitness. Captain Harry Kane – Russia 2018’s Golden Boot winner – still seeks his first goal at this year’s finals, and will once more lead the Three Lions up front.
Meanwhile, Senegal must make their attempt to reach the final eight not only without injured talisman Sadio Mane but also his former club rival on Merseyside, Everton’s Idrissa Gueye. The midfield workhorse is suspended after receiving a second booking of the finals versus Ecuador, while Cheikhou Kouyate sustained an ankle injury in their first fixture and has since been ruled out of training. Nampalys Mendy of Leicester City should therefore deputise. In Mane’s glaring absence, Watford winger Ismaila Sarr and Sheffield United’s Iliman Ndiaye have picked up the slack – Famara Diedhiou and Krepin Diatta are also contenders to feature on Sunday – with Salernitana striker Boulaye Dia providing the central goal threat.
Chelsea pair Edouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly are stalwarts of the Senegalese defence, which is set to remain unchanged by coach Aliou Cisse. After all that noise – the joy, the triumphalism, the entitlement, the schadenfreude, the self-loathing – England had the best record of any team in the group stage at Qatar 2022. It shows how far they have come under Gareth Southgate that seven points and nine goals, the latter a record for England at a major tournament, was not enough to please Twitter’s finest. Even in the hysterical world of the England national team, it’s hard to remember the last time that the balance between on-field achievement and off-field angst was so far out of whack, and that is unlikely to change unless England win handsomely against Senegal tonight. After a semi-final in 2018 and a final last year, the louder elements of the media, traditional and social, have come to a near unanimous conclusion: Southgate is holding England back.
The received wisdom is that England have an embarrassment of riches in attacking areas. Fine players though they are, we might be confusing the excellence of the Premier League with that of the national team. Since England became good again in 2018, a total of 10,158 voting points have been available at the Ballon d’Or. (Bear with us, this isn’t as boring as it sounds.) Premier League players picked up 3,431 of them, or 33.78%. But English players received only 86, or 0.85%. That’s less than Eden Hazard, and he has barely played in the last three years. For all his imperfections, most obviously his indecisive in-game management, Southgate has significantly overachieved with a squad that is not as talented as the “golden generation” of the mid-2000s. Senegal, who they face tonight, have been filed under “awkward opponent but one England should beat”. England have never lost to an African team, a statistic that has been cited frequently in the buildup. Despite 30 years of watching players as stylistically diverse as Nwankwo Kanu, Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Jay-Jay Okocha and Yaya Touré in the Premier League, there is a perceived homogeneity to African football that doesn’t reflect well on English football’s subconscious.
France are also in action today, taking on a Poland side who qualified for the last 16 with their tail between their legs. It should be a joyous occasion, Poland’s first knockout game at the World Cup since a closer-than-it-sounds 4-0 defeat by Brazil in 1986, but their pitiful performance against Argentina – no shots on target, no ambition, but only one yellow card – has changed the mood. It depends on what happens against France, but when the story of Poland’s 2022 campaign is written, historians may conclude that it would have been better to go out with a bang than through with a whimper.
England have no such choice. Unless they go through with a bang against Senegal, the knives – and the hashtags – will probably be out. RS Since Louis van Gaal took charge the Netherlands are unbeaten in 19 matches. In yesterday’s ruthless 3-1 dismissal of the USA they appeared to be a team playing within themselves, still with plenty of room for improvement in their quarter-final against Argentina – and perhaps beyond. There was a smidgen of defensive vulnerability to be seen when the USA fought back to 2-1 in the second half, but that recovery was swiftly squashed by a third Dutch goal, scored by the exceptional Denzel Dumfries.