England’s 2018 World Cup finally gets under way on Monday, with Tunisia awaiting at the Volgograd Arena.
Here, Press Association Sport looks at some of the key issues ahead of the match.
AN END TO OPENING-DAY NERVES?
England have not won their first fixture at a major tournament since 2006 when they edged Paraguay in Frankfurt. They have since drawn with the United States, France and Russia as well as losing to Italy at the last World Cup. Nerves in the curtain-raising fixture are not restricted to the Three Lions, of course, but their record could certainly do with some polishing. Three points would go a long way to affirming the squad’s serene preparations as well as paving the way to the last 16.
KANE’S TOURNAMENT DROUGHT
Harry Kane has been the Premier League’s market-leading finisher for four years, during which he has finessed his end product and built an enviable CV. The one notable omission is a lack of goals in summer tournaments – with the Spurs striker drawing a blank at the Under-21 European Championship and then again with the seniors at Euro 2016. Now he is captain, he must shoulder the burden and has welcomed the rising expectations with open arms. With 13 goals in 24 caps, the shirt clearly doesn’t burden him – so can he seize the moment in Russia?
2 x 8 = ?
Gareth Southgate has pledged to play with one screening midfielder and two ‘number eights’ – at least against the less expansive opponents like Tunisia and Panama. That makes Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard a crucial axis in the centre of the field. The pair’s partnership is still in its infancy though and it is arguable if either man is being utilised in his optimal position. How they dovetail in midfield could determine England’s tempo and ability to create scoring chances.
PICKFORD NEEDS A STEADY START
Unless Southgate springs a major surprise, Jordan Pickford will don the gloves on Monday – making just his fourth appearance and his first in competitive internationals. It would be tempting to view it as a failure in planning but Southgate’s selections have been guided by form, not a loyalty programme from the qualifying period. All Pickford needs to do is provide a safe pair of hands, quite literally, but just ask Spain’s David De Gea how hard that can be when the heat is on.
IN THE STANDS
England are well known for their raucous travelling support but ticket sales to Three Lions fans for this tournament have been well down on previous editions. Affordability and logistics are an obvious issue but there have been many other side concerns including British diplomatic tension with Russia, LGBT rights, racism and hooliganism. Will the thinned-out numbers of English fans dent the team’s confidence, or might that factor help relieve some of the weight of expectation?