ENGLAND vs SENEGAL
Sunday 4th December, 7pm
England @ 8/15
Senegal @ 29/10
Draw @ 11/2
The action in Qatar has escalated, the tension has been cranked right up, the shocks have been electrified.
And two major contenders have successfully put the ‘D’oh!’ into Doha.
Four-time World Cup winners Germany, despite playing in the highest-quality group stage match, are out. They were untypically profligate at the front, and surprisingly porous at the back. And though I am not one to greatly indulge in schadenfreude, Antonio Rüdiger’s exaggerated, show-boating jog against Japan when the score was only 1-0 in their favour, feels like a key snapshot of their demise.
Germany went on to lose that match and, in an already tricky group, left themselves vulnerable. It was also a cautionary moment for others to observe: at this level, when the stakes are at their highest, you underestimate your opponent at your peril. Because games can be won and lost in seconds; outcomes determined by the merest millimetres.
Belgium, and Romelu Lukaku in particular, also had a tournament to forget. Although the Inter Milan striker was returning from injury, and couldn’t be blamed for Belgium’s uninspired performances in their previous games, his was a risible cameo against Croatia.
There have been rumours of discord – outsized egos and frigid ghostings – but, ultimately, one can’t help but wonder whether Roberto Martinez, a manager who oversaw Wigan Athletic’s relegation from the Premier League in 2013, was ever really the right person to tessellate the elite shapes that the Belgian squad possessed.
A so-called Golden Generation, perhaps, slowly cemented into brass?
The only thing that has shown more desire than Cristiano Ronaldo to keep itself in the headlines has been VAR. One hopes, as the importance of the fixtures increases, that it is the skills of the footballers that determine proceedings, rather than the off-pitch sticklers.
So far, though, it is the unbridled elation of sides and their fans making the later stages – especially in less-traditional outfits such as Morocco and Australia – that has managed to create the most enduring legacy.
It was disappointing to learn that while a rousing, theatrical oration from actor Michael Sheen can inject some adrenaline directly into Welsh breastplates; it does not, sadly, help their footballers string two passes together.
Despite encountering a trough of enthusiasm at the midway point, England comfortably topped their group, a feat they haven’t achieved in a World Cup since 2006.
The most eye-catching aspect of the Tuesday night victory over Wales wasn’t just the fizzing, direct runs of a rejuvenated, shot-happy Marcus Rashford; but the fact that Gareth Southgate made a decisive tactical switch at half-time.
Has he finally become a manager with the ability and desire to change things mid-game? And have some scarily in-form forwards fallen into his lap at exactly the same time?
Is that strange feeling in the pit of my stomach…optimism? Or just indigestion from eating too many packets of pickled onion Monster Munch while in a reclined position?
England step into the lion’s den of World Cup last 16 football at 7pm on Sunday; and they will find it, perhaps unsurprisingly, chock full of lions. Because England’s ‘Three Lions’ are set to face Senegal’s ‘Lions of Teranga’.
Teranga, in Senegalese culture, is the highly-valued quality of warm hospitality; of being a good host and providing guests with a seat at the table and food to eat. But something tells me that on this occasion, for England, the chairs will be uncomfortable, the portions will be poorly seasoned, and the wine will be from the budget end of the Gary Barlow collection.
In the absence of striking talisman Sadio Mané, Chelsea centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly is the fulcrum from whom the Africa Cup of Nations Champions will seek guidance and stability.
So will everyone be going gaga in Dakar come Sunday night? Which set of lions will ultimately be annointed king? And what role will England’s newest assist-king Harry Kane play? Can he possibly be tamed?
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