Deadly frontman: England hope Harry Kane can lead the team to at least the knock-out stages in Russia. Picture: REUTERS
Deadly frontman: England hope Harry Kane can lead the team to at least the knock-out stages in Russia. Picture: REUTERS

London — England will arrive at the Fifa World Cup in Russia without the noisily optimistic drumbeats that often accompany them to major tournaments.

Years of underachievement and disappointment have doused any serious hope among supporters and jingoistic media that England will finally emulate the feats of 1966 and win the World Cup.

Statistically, they remain one of the major teams most likely to qualify for tournaments but least likely to win one. Unbeaten in qualifiers for major tournaments since 2009, they have won only six knock-out games of international football since that day Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy at Wembley.

It is now 12 years since they beat Ecuador to reach the World Cup quarterfinals where they lost to Portugal on penalties, a familiar English fate.

Their last two major tournaments have been disastrous, with exit in the group stages in Brazil in 2014 followed by defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016, a result that pitched the team to an historic low and cost manager Roy Hodgson his job.

In fact, there was more ignominy to come with the bizarre 67-day stewardship of Sam Allardyce, who departed after a newspaper sting, before current manager Gareth Southgate was promoted from the under-21 team.

Southgate, who was an accomplished defender, is one of the few England players of recent vintage to have known relative success at an international tournament, having been in the side that reached the semifinals of Euro 96. He also knows the heartbreak, having missed the penalty in a shoot-out that paved the way for Germany to progress to the final.

In his quietly effective way, the manager has stitched together a team that, after a tedious procession of qualifiers, are starting to show promise.

In captain Harry Kane, England have one of the tournament’s most deadly frontmen, although finding the right creative midfielders to supply him has proved problematic.

Southgate has real attacking talent to choose from in Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, plus Kane’s Tottenham team-mate Dele Alli and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, with Jamie Vardy likely to be unleashed as an impact substitute.

Further back, the manager has experimented with goalkeepers and centrebacks around a formation that flits between 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1, with John Stones, who has struggled to hold down a starting spot at Manchester City, likely to be the defensive linchpin.

Assuming they survive a favourable group draw that has pitted them against Belgium, Tunisia and Panama, they face a likely knock-out game against Poland or Colombia followed by a possible quarterfinal against Brazil, which would be a repeat of 2002 when England narrowly lost. No one with any sense of history is looking beyond that.