When the draw for the World Cup in Qatar was made, most observers felt that England's progression from a group containing Iran, Wales and the United States would be fairly perfunctory and so it has proven. No disrespect to any of those teams, but none were considered soccer heavyweights beforehand and though there were a few surprises along the way, those qualifying for the final 16 from Group B were always highly likely to be The Three Lions plus one other.
So what have we learned about Gareth Southgate’s men so far? In truth, not a lot more than has been gleaned during previous tournaments, or even the qualifiers for Qatar. The side contains a lot of very good - even exceptional - players, all playing at a very high level of competition. Sure, there are some weaknesses, notably in central defence and left back, but overall the manager’s biggest conundrums are who to include and who to omit from his starting eleven, and which formation to adopt. These are good problems to have.
Southgate is nothing if not loyal to those that have performed for him in the past, so I’d expect Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw to comprise a back four, with Kieran Trippier coming in at right wing-back should the national boss opt to revert to his favoured back three; Walker in that case being deployed at centre-half. In midfield, breakout star Jude Bellingham will surely retain his place alongside Declan Rice and Mason Mount will come in for Jordan Henderson. Flanking Harry Kane - still to get off the mark in Qatar - I’d anticipate Bukayo Saka starting on the right, with either a resurgent Marcus Rashford, or old favourite Raheem Sterling occupying the left wing berth.
Everton’s interest will be confined to stalwart national team goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who has been tested by only five shots during the World Cup (one a penalty versus Iran). Tomorrow’s opponents, Senegal will surely examine the Blues ‘keeper more than has been the case to date. Conor Coady has yet to feature during the tournament - not even last time out against Wales, when there was heavy rotation - so the chances of him appearing tomorrow look remote.
As for Senegal, the reigning AFCON champions, even deprived of star man Sadio Mane through injury, present solid opposition that should not be taken lightly. The West Africans kicked off the tournament by losing to eventual Group A winners Netherlands in what was a closely contested game, but rebounded to defeat hosts Qatar and Ecuador in order to secure qualification for the knockout stages. They’ve enjoyed enthusiastic support in Qatar and play with a lot of team spirit and enthusiasm.
Manager Aliou Cisse has a side littered with players operating all across European leagues, so there’s plenty of experience and quality amongst their ranks, notably the likes of Chelsea’s Kalidou Koulibaly. The major omission (other than Mane, obviously) is Everton’s Idrissa Gueye, who has impressed during the competition whilst playing a more forward role than we’re used to seeing at the club, but who, disappointingly, is suspended for the tie after picking up two yellow cards during the group stages.
Filling the hole Gana will leave in the Senegal ranks may be Pape Matar Sarr. Signed by Tottenham Hotspur for around €17m from FC Metz 18 months ago, the now 20-year-old has played 59 games for the French club as a teenager, highlighting his promise, but has yet to kick a ball for the London outfit this term. The midfielder is highly touted and the World Cup can offer a stage for youngsters to enhance their reputation.
The teams will likely field similar formations, with England going with a 4-3-3 and the Lions of Teranga a 4-2-3-1 and I anticipate an exciting, competitive match decided in extra time. Whatever happens, Everton interest will be maintained as Pickford is a nailed-on starter and Gana will return from suspension for the quarter-finals. I’m going for a 3-2 win for the Three Lions, though an upset would not shock me.