England are on the brink of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
With a five-point lead at the top of Group F ahead of the coming week’s final two matches, only a major slip-up can deny them a place in the global showpiece.
But can they make an impact in the tournament itself? Here are some reasons to believe they could provide a serious challenge.
The form of Harry Kane
Kane’s blistering start to the season seems to have won over the last of the Tottenham striker’s doubters. The 24-year-old scored 13 goals in September for club and country and, coming after three successive prolific seasons, he is being widely acknowledged as world class. His commitment to boyhood club Spurs is not in question but it now seems only a matter of when, not if, one of Europe’s biggest clubs make a bid to prise him away. He seems likely to be named as England’s next permanent captain and he could certainly lead by example. Should he maintain his form, England would have a serious cutting edge.
Other players who have the talent to shine
Marcus Rashford has also started the season well with Manchester United and is looking the real deal. When he burst onto the scene ahead of Euro 2016 there was a fear he could prove a flash in the pan but he is now well beyond that. If Dele Alli can rediscover the form of recent seasons and Raheem Sterling perform consistently, England have some exciting and young attacking options. Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley and Jack Wilshere retain the potential to excel if they can get back to fitness and the likes of Kyle Walker and John Stones are improving. With experienced heads such as Joe Hart, Jordan Henderson and Gary Cahill in the mix, manager Gareth Southgate could have a good blend.
Confidence from an excellent qualifying record
This can hardly be described as a crucial factor, given how little difference it has made to England in their last two tournaments. Under Roy Hodgson, England qualified for the 2014 World Cup without losing a game only go out in the group stage in Brazil. They then went to Euro 2016 with a 100 per cent record and crashed out to Iceland. But notwithstanding this, positive results undoubtedly breed more confidence than defeats and, while not all the performances have been convincing, it has to be useful to know how to dig out results.
Southgate could seize his moment
Southgate was thrust into the England hotseat after the shock axing of Sam Allardyce just one game into his reign. It was an opportunity he probably never expected to come his way and it is one he should be keen to seize. So far he has coped well with the pressures and shown some steel. He has not been afraid to speak his mind when things have not gone according to plan and his recent assertion that some players did not deserve their call-up was a blunt, no-nonsense warning. This indicates that beneath the easy-going image he portrays he has the hard edge necessary for the job. The crunch will come when he has players under his charge day-in, day-out in a tournament setting. If he masters that and oversees a harmonious camp – and the Football Association will go to the usual great lengths to make life comfortable for all – England could gain an advantage over their rivals.
No Wayne Rooney
It is probably for the best that Rooney decided to take matters out of Southgate’s hands and retire from international football. Southgate dropped the country’s record goalscorer last season as he struggled for fitness and form at United. His summer move to Everton and subsequent rejuvenation led to calls for a recall after a fine start to the season but it was still difficult to see a role for him beyond that of an impact substitute. That might have been a useful option but if there was another loss of form Rooney would have created another difficult selection dilemma. At least Southgate can now look elsewhere without being continually asked why he has overlooked Rooney. If a glut of injuries change the situation and Southgate has to go back to Rooney with an SOS so be it but the manager may find it easier this way.