2022 World Cup: Opportunity knocks for England ahead of 'final before the final' with France

Opportunity will not so much be knocking as hammering on the door in Al Bayt tonight. The question is whether England will be brave enough as well as good enough to open it.

So much has been unpredictable about this World Cup but attitudes towards the Three Lions have followed a familiar pattern.

They arrived with their own fans talking down their chances, only for expectations to explode as soon as they get a few wins. Beat France in their quarter-final and England really will expect.

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For those prone to over-excitement, it will be a final before the final.

EXPECTATIONS: Enlgnad manager Gareth SouthgateEXPECTATIONS: Enlgnad manager Gareth Southgate
EXPECTATIONS: Enlgnad manager Gareth Southgate

With Brazil knocked out on penalties by Croatia on Friday and Netherlands losing to Argentina after spot-kicks hours later, the winners between the holders and the runners-up in the last European Championship will be favourites to lift the trophy – an unenviable tag in a competition where logic has regularly been thrown out of the window.

Manager Gareth Southgate's tenure has been England's longest run of prolonged success but when they have come up short – against Croatia in the 2018 semi-finals and Italy in last year's European final – it has been because they have not had the courage to push on when in front. Taking the lead will show if they have learnt from that.

Southgate believes England are better prepared for World Cup success than four years ago and says mentality will be key tonight.

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Having comfortably topped their group and swatted aside Senegal with ease in the round of 16, millions across the land will be tuning into Saturday’s mouthwatering encounter at Al Bayt Stadium.

France are favourites to progress to Wednesday’s semi-final, but England are a different beast to 2018, when they surpassed expectations to reach the final four at a tournament where their aim was just to win a knockout match.

Southgate’s side went on to finish as European Championship runners-up last year and now they are looking to beat an elite nation in a knockout match on foreign soil for the first time, with another semi-final the reward.

“The biggest thing for me in the game is going to be our mentality,” the England manager said. “We’ll of course be tactically prepared.

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“But on these nights you’ve got to have men that stand up and take on the challenge. That’s the bit that we’ve got to prove to people.

“We’ve had some outstanding nights and the next game is always the most important. It’s against a good level of opponent, one we’re ready for. One, if you’d asked me four years ago were we quite ready, I’m not sure.

“Now I feel differently about that, and that’s because we’ve got evidence over a long period of results.

"Historically we have always talked well, but the evidence wasn’t there. Now we’ve got more evidence and we’ve got to go and nail this type of game now.”

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England are looking to reach the semi-final stage at a third successive major tournament in what Southgate this week called England's “acid test” against the reigning champions.

He believes France are the “very best” in Qatar and staff stepped up preparations with a detailed presentation on their opponents at 9am on Monday – just six hours after getting back from the Senegal match.

External debate over selection and set-up has rumbled ever since the last-16 triumph, but the approach has long since been settled upon.

“We decided on Monday,” Southgate said. “We’d already watched by Monday night all the games of France, we’d already reviewed our game from Senegal.

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“So, we’re very clear on the right path because then you’ve got to deliver that through the week. We’re comfortable with where we’re at.”

Few understand representing England better than 57-cap former defender Southgate, who went to four senior tournaments as a player and is now coaching at his third.

Asked if he feels better prepared now, he said: “Well, I’d be an idiot if I hadn’t learnt over five years managing some of the biggest games in world football, managing some of the most high-profile players in Europe. Going through the experience of having one of the most high-profile jobs in the country, you learn quite a lot.

"You constantly improve as a coach. Another four-five years down the line I’ll be a better coach than I am now. Another hundred games, or whatever.

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“That, I think, is the challenge for every manager, every coach - you’ve got to constantly improve, you’ve got to find the new things that are happening that can improve the team.

“How does the team evolve over a period of time? In Russia, it was the right way to go to get the best players we had at that time on the pitch.

“I think we’ve constantly tried to evolve that, and I think we’ve done that during this tournament as well.

“I know people think I have a preference for a certain system, but if anything my preference has always been 4-3-3, but I don’t think it’s always been appropriate for us to play and get the best out of the team.

“The job is not just to have a philosophy, the job is to win football matches.”