More questions than answers as England lags behind for the World Cup

Soccer Football – UEFA Nations League – Group C – Italy v England – San Siro, Milan, Italy – September 23, 2022 England manager Gareth Southgate shakes hands with Harry Kane after the match REUTERS/Alberto Lingria

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September 23 (Reuters) – World Cup 2018 semi-finalists, last year’s European Championship runners-up England surfed a wave of optimism but the wheels have spectacularly come loose and they now look far from potential winners in Qatar.

Friday’s 1-0 defeat in Italy sent them out of the top division of the Nations League after a season in which they lost twice to Hungary – including 4-0 at Wembley – and once to Italy, as well as two draws.

Their only goal in five games was a late Harry Kane penalty against Germany and they will hardly be brimming with confidence for the return leg at home on Monday.

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Manager Gareth Southgate had a relatively even side during the Euros when England threatened from all over the pitch and were solid in defence.

After that dismal run, however, there are only a handful of players who can be confident of starting in Qatar and the manager now seems unsure what his best system is.

His often-cited policy of looking to form has proved hollow after he started with Harry Maguire on Friday, despite the centre-back barely getting a game at Manchester United.

His chopped and altered midfield failed miserably to manage the game – despite Declan Rice’s slightly bizarre claim that England controlled it.

Jude Bellingham, still just 19 for all his experience for Borussia Dortmund, has probably done as much as anyone to improve his World Cup prospects, while Kane remains a world-class threat if he stays fit, as does Reece James always remains reliable.

However, Raheem Sterling struggled for impact, as did Southgate’s unbeatable favorite Bukayo Saka and ineffective substitute Jack Grealish.

OUT OF NIGHT

Even the ultra-reliable Kyle Walker had a night off, giving Giacomo Raspadori far too much time to find his spot right in the penalty area and score the winning goal midway through the second half.

After the shocking 4-0 defeat by Hungary in June, the crowd turned to Southgate and there were renewed boos from the visiting fans as he stood up to applaud them on Friday.

Never a man to get too carried away by performances, good or bad, he was surprisingly optimistic.

“We played very well for much of the game – lots of good individual performances,” he said. “Personally, I thought the performance was a step in the right direction. I fully understand based on the result that that will not be the reaction.”

Monday’s Wembley appointment against Germany, who lost 1-0 at home to Hungary on Friday, is his last chance to rediscover the fizz that swept the whole country just over a year ago before he died in November making a final attempt to end what is now 56 years of pain.

The good news for him is that England have landed a relatively soft World Cup group and the games in the order he would have liked. They start against Iran and then face the United States before a duel against Wales which they were expected to win.

Class in the squad should prevail, but with a likely quarter-final game with France, form needs to be radically boosted if England are to maintain or improve on their run in the last four of 2018.

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Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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