Photo by Eddie Keogh – The FA/The FA via Getty Images
Sometimes, cliches are cliches for a reason. England, for instance, have been knocked out at the quarter-final stage of a World Cup on no fewer than eight occasions between 1950 and 2006. No side has bowed out more frequently in the last-eight.
Remember when everyone used to make such a big deal about England failing to progress beyond that particular hurdle? Well, this is why. Every joke, as they say, has a kernel of truth.
All of which doesn’t bode particularly well for Gareth Southgate’s boys in Qatar. Not given the quality of opposition they could face in the quarter-finals.
Now, England should, should, finish top of a group containing Wales, USA and a discretely-dangerous Iran outfit.
The first knockout round is when things start to get really serious, however. The real-life equivalent of going from semi-pro to professional on FIFA 23. Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands side have a smattering of elite-level talent in their ranks. And if you think Sadio Mane is scary enough, then you probably haven’t paid enough attention to his Senegal team-mates Ismaila Sarr, Bamba Dieng and Iliman Ndiaye.
If a shock occurs in Group A, Southgate and his coaching staff will have to bone up on their knowledge of Ecuador or hosts Qatar instead.
But a quarter-final place is certainly a possibility. Then come the big boys. Boss battle territory. France or Argentina? Kylian Mbappe or Lionel Messi? That’s like choosing between being squished into human jelly by a steamroller or being Spartan-kicked into a venomous snake pit.
Of course, the identity of England’s quarter-final opponents – should they get that far – depends on what happens in Groups C and D. Argentina have made great strides since the ill-fated Jorge Sampaoli era. They certainly made short work of Italy in the Finalissima (yes, that is a real competition).
Lionel Scaloni’s side are clear favourites to win Group C ahead of Mexico, Saudi Arabia and a perennially-underwhelming Poland side more-than-likely containing a frustrated, starved-of-service Robert Lewandowski.
France, meanwhile, are the strongest team in Group D despite the presence of an excellent Denmark outfit. Les Bleus, World Cup holders, should have far too much for whoever finishes behind Argentina in the round-of-16 too.
Should England come out on top against either Argentina or France – beating a genuine challenger in a knockout tie for the first time in generations (we’re in dreamland now, boys) – Harry Kane and co could conceivably go up against the likes of Spain, Belgium, Brazil or Portugal in the semis.
Germany, another potential opponent, have been revitalised under former Bayern Munich coach and treble-winner Hansi Flick, and will have revenge on their mind after the Euros last year.
Of course, this is all hypothetical. This is an England side in a far-from convincing state, at least compared to the one that came within a few penalty kicks of glory at Wembley some 15 months ago, with so many of Southgate’s most-trusted lieutenants either out of form or out of favour at club level.
But if you can’t dream of a stirring run to the World Cup final on the brink of a new World Cup, then when can you?
In other news, Tottenham youngster & Newcastle target: England Under-21 stars who could make World Cup squad