England open their World Cup campaign on Monday seeking to banish memories of dismal performances in recent tournaments as Belgium’s “Golden Generation” kick off as dark-horse challengers.
England, winners on football’s biggest stage more than half a century ago, crashed out without a win four years ago in Brazil, and have not won a knockout match in any tournament since 2006.
Gareth Southgate’s team will be eager to start with a bang after world champions Germany slipped up in their opening match against Mexico and favourites Brazil were held by Switzerland.
Southgate’s young charges arrived in Russia quietly confident after a solid qualifying campaign and encouraging friendly results against Brazil, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.
They play Tunisia in the historic city of Volgograd knowing anything other than a win would disrupt pre-tournament plans, with Belgium looming later in Group G.
Southgate’s lack of experience was widely discussed when he was appointed but the former Under 21s coach has cultivated an atmosphere of unity and a determination to bury past failures.
“This team shouldn’t be burdened with that because they’re a fresh group, most of them have very few international caps, so the future is all ahead of them,” Southgate told reporters.
England captain Harry Kane, who is yet to score a goal in a tournament, has vowed an aggressive approach against opponents expected to defend in numbers.
“First and foremost we are going to want to attack the game, we feel like we are going to have a lot of possession of the ball,” the Tottenham forward said.
Belgium start their World Cup campaign on more familiar ground: a squad stuffed with stars but with questions over their manager.
Spaniard Roberto Martinez was a left-field choice to replace Marc Wilmots after Euro 2016 and the former Everton boss seems no nearer to solving the puzzle of getting Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne playing to their sky-high potentials in the same side.
The boys from Brussels face Panama, Central America’s World Cup debutants, in Sochi.
Martinez on Sunday said Hazard was ready to light up a tournament in the same way as Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo did with his stunning hat-trick against Spain.
“I think Eden is in a great moment of his career. Look at his age, he is the captain, in terms of leadership — he never finds it difficult to show for the ball,” he said.
Results under Martinez have been excellent — Belgium have not lost since he took over — but there is a sense that this tournament represents their best chance at World Cup glory.
– German crisis –
Germany are licking their wounds after slumping 1-0 to a Hirving Lozano strike in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium — their first defeat in their opening game of a World Cup since 1982.
The German press labelled the performance “embarrassing” and coach Joachim Loew did not mince his words, saying his side’s next match against Sweden was a must-win.
If Germany finish as Group F runners-up, they could face Brazil in a clash of World Cup titans in the next round.
But Brazil themselves started their Russian campaign with a whimper on Sunday when gutsy Switzerland battled back to cancel out a superb Philippe Coutinho strike, scoring through Steven Zuber’s powerful header.
Monday’s early game sees Sweden take on South Korea in Nizhny Novgorod in Germany’s group.
The Swedes come to Russia at the dawning of the “post-Zlatan” era, after their talismanic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic ended his international career after the last Euros.
In Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-Min, the Koreans have a world-class player and potential match-winner.
But overall they are a shadow of the team who famously reached the semi-finals as 2002 World Cup co-hosts.