MANAGER Gareth Southgate is confident England will not repeat past mistakes by looking beyond their last-16 clash with Colombia, but he accepts the World Cup draw represents a chance for his players to “write their own stories”.
Southgate’s men take on the South Americans at Moscow’s Spartak Stadium tonight well backed and in good spirits, but without a knockout victory at a major tournament since 2006.
This is hardly the kind of record that invites overconfidence yet the disappearance of potential opponents Germany and Spain from England’s section has led to fevered speculation about just how far the Three Lions can go in Russia.
Southgate has made a point of encouraging a seam of optimism in a youthful side showing fewer battle scars than previous England squads and was not about to make a U-turn on the eve of their biggest test to date.
“For this team it’s a brilliant opportunity to go beyond where more experienced teams have gone before. They’re relishing that chance,” he said.
“You want to be involved in this type of match, the games that matter. The lads have the chance to write their own stories now.
“I want the players to continue to attack the tournament as we have. That shouldn’t change in the knockout stage. If anything we should feel freer. It’s going to be a fantastic evening.
“You always have to have aims and ambitions, dreams and goals. That’s important.
“At a World Cup, we’re in the business of bringing hope and excitement to a whole nation. That’s a privileged position to be in.”
England, then, have licence to believe. What they do not have, as long as Southgate is in place to bring a sense of perspective honed by his own disappointments on national duty, is a superiority complex.
“We’ve been in this position before many times over the last however many years,” he added as questions turned to the seemingly inviting route ahead.
“It’s pointless us even thinking about what might happen after this game. We focus on the game, on our performance, and everything will fall into place from there.
“Maybe the teams who aren’t here weren’t as strong this time. If teams knock out Germany and Spain they have to be respected.
“What we sense in this group is an excitement, an understanding that it’s pointless looking beyond [Colombia], and that was a trap we’ve fallen into in the past.”
And the recent past at that. Iceland, and defeat to the soundtrack of a Viking thunderclap, is a cloud that has taken some lifting over the past two years.
“A few of these players were in the last championship, in a fixture they thought they should win, and then once behind they suddenly felt that approach wasn’t one that was correct,” said Southgate.
“We won’t fall into that trap up against a really good team. But we’re in there with all the teams we’re discussing, and it’s a brilliant place to be.”
There appears to be little guesswork involved in the England XI, with few of the understudies who lost 1-0 against Belgium last week making a compelling case for their retention.
England are highly likely to revert to the team that started the tournament against Tunisia in Volgograd.
That means Ruben Loftus-Cheek dropping out and a return for Dele Alli, who injured his thigh in that game and has not been seen since.
“For any player who misses matches at this level, having worked so hard to get to this stage, it’s very difficult, but we didn’t see any point in bringing him back too early,” said the manager.
“He’s absolutely fine now. The timing of his runs, that ability to see spaces in opposition defences, time the runs in the box and finish... that hasn’t happened as much for us as it has at his club, but he has the ability and technique to do that.”
Raheem Sterling is also likely to take his place in support of the tournament’s leading scorer Harry Kane.
Sterling hit the net 23 times for Manchester City last season, but when the Colombia game kicks off it will be 999 days since his last international goal.
Asked if he felt the clock was about to stop, Southgate said: “Whether it is or it isn’t I have great belief in him.”
He added: “He’s been a really important part of the team. At times I’ve wondered why there’s been so much focus on his position in the team and not on others. But he’s tough and resilient and he’s a player who will be immensely looking forward to this occasion.”