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World Cup: England team guide

England head into their sixth successive World Cup finals looking for a massive improvement on their 2014 performance when they finished bottom of the group with just one point following defeats by Italy and Uruguay, and a draw against Costa Rica.

Despite their poor showing in Brazil, the odds on England to win the World Cup are 14/1 which reflects their impressive displays in the qualifiers in which they finished unbeaten with eight wins and two draws from their 10 group games.

England are now unbeaten in their last two World Cup qualifying campaigns, last losing to Ukraine under Fabio Capello eight years ago.

Gareth Southgate will lead the side in Russia this time hoping to emulate England's greatest manager Alf Ramsey, who secured World Cup glory 52 years ago with a 4-2 victory over West Germany on home soil.

The best performance since the historic England World Cup win in 1966 came at Italia 90 where they reached the semi-finals but were knocked out by Germany on penalties in a match made famous by Paul Gascoigne's tears.

England have also reached the last eight on four other occasions post-1966 (1970, 1986, 2002 and 2006), but they also had a barren period between 1974-1994 when they failed to qualify three times.

Although an England World Cup win isn't out of the question, most pundits would regard another quarter-final appearance as success for a side that is likely to include only a handful of players that Roy Hodgson took to South America four years ago. For some, that may well be a blessing.

England: World Cup qualifying campaign

On paper England's road to Russia was as smooth as silk, but the reality was a few bumps and cracks along the way made the journey troublesome.

England qualified for the World Cup unbeaten just as they had done for South Africa but that was only half the story as they had to contend with a managerial change just one game into the group stage.

Sam Allardyce was appointed England coach on a two-year contract and won his first game in charge thanks to a last-minute goal from Adam Lallana against Slovakia. However, that was the last we saw of 'Big Sam' who resigned just 67 days into the role following a newspaper sting.

England Under-21 manager Southgate took temporary charge for the 2-0 win against Malta, a fortunate goalless draw in Slovenia and a 3-0 victory against Scotland to put the Three Lions two points clear at the top of Group E.

On November 30, nearly three weeks after the Scotland win, Southgate was appointed permanent England boss on a four-year contract.

The rest of the campaign went pretty much to plan although it look a last-minute equaliser from Harry Kane to rescue a 2-2 draw against Scotland in June and three months later England had to come back from an early goal to see off main rivals Slovakia 2-1 at Wembley.

They secured qualification in their next match when Kane spared England's blushes again with an injury-time winner against Slovenia. Kane finished joint top scorer for Group E with the only goal in Lithuania which wrapped up their campaign.

England's key players

Harry Kane

The Tottenham striker scored five goals in qualifying and will be crucial to England's chances of success in Russia. With just four friendlies to go before the tournament starts, Kane has 12 goals in 23 appearances for England and is probably the only genuine world-class player in the squad.

Dele Alli

Alli is one of the many young players Southgate is likely to take on the plane to Russia and he will play a vital role in midfield typified by deep runs, boundless energy and the ability to supply Tottenham team-mate Kane with the ammunition he needs to fire England into the knockout stage. Also has the ability to produce something out of nothing as he did with a wonder goal against France.

Raheem Sterling

The Manchester City winger has come on leaps and bounds under manager Pep Guardiola and is the sort of player needed to provide a bit of magic to unlock some of those stubborn defences England are likely to face in the group stage. Possessing skill, pace and great control, Sterling will be a worry for any full-back in the world and his goal output at club level will be encouraging for Southgate.

Eric Dier

The third Spurs player to make our top five England players is one whose versatility will be a massive asset to Southgate either in the heart of midfield or the centre of defence. An aggressive tackler and excellent in the air, Dier is a player who does the simple things well and his ability to break up play will give players with more creativity the chance to get at opposing defences. Scored a crucial equaliser against Slovakia at Wembley and who could forget his winner in that comeback win against Germany two years ago?

Phil Jones

John Stones may be better on the ball than Jones but when it comes to rugged no-nonsense defending, there is no-one to touch the Manchester United defender. Southgate described the former Blackburn centre-back as England's best defender after the 4-0 win against Malta, saying: "He's got very good composure on the ball. He's got the reading of the game, he's aggressive in his defending and he has got fantastic experience, although he is still only relatively young."

England's Group G opponents

Belgium

Belgium are 10/1 sixth favourites to win the World Cup after running away with their qualifying group with nine wins and a draw, scoring 43 goals in the process. Romelu Lukaku scored nearly a quarter of those goals, but Eden Hazard chipped in with six and PSG right-back Thomas Meunier bagged five, as many as England's top scorer Kane.

Interestingly, Kevin de Bruyne, a revelation at Manchester City this season, failed to score in any of his appearances. Napoli winger Dries Merten will also give England problems, while Toby Alderweireld, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen will provide stability at the back. Hopes are high of at least a quarter-final place for Belgium at the World Cup.

Tunisia

Tunisia reached their first World Cup finals in 12 years with a goalless draw against Libya after an unbeaten qualifying campaign. The north Africans have won just won match in their five appearances at the finals which came 40 years ago in a 3-1 victory over Mexico and the main aim for coach Nabil Maaloul will be to make it two when they face Panama. With attacking players like Youssef Msakni and Wahbi Khazri in their ranks, they have a chance but not enough to get out of the group.

Panama

Panama qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time with a 2-1 victory over Costa Rica four years after they went so close to securing a play-off place, only to concede two stoppage-time goals against the United States. Seattle Sounders defender Roman Torres and defensive midfielder Gabriel Gomez will be key to keeping England and Belgium at bay, while Gabriel Torres and Blas Perez will be the main dangers up front if there is to be a Panama World Cup shock.

England World Cup chances

England have failed to get beyond the quarter-finals since finishing fourth at Italia 90 and although Southgate is assembling a youthful side with bags of talent, they are unlikely to secure a spot in the last four in Russia.

No matter how well England perform in the group stage at the World Cup finals, they are likely to face one of the two favourites in the last eight.

England may have favourable World Cup fixtures in the group stage with Belgium, Tunisia and debutants Panama standing in their way of a place in the round of 16, but either Brazil or Germany surely await them in the quarter-finals.

Should England finish second behind Belgium in Group G, they are likely to face either Poland or Colombia in the first knockout round, teams above the Three Lions in FIFA's world rankings.

Awaiting them in the round of 16 is likely to be World Cup favourites Germany against whom England have a good record in friendlies over the last couple of years, but not in the knockout stages of major championships in which they have lost their last three.

If England win their group and see off either Poland, Colombia or Senegal in the round of 16, then Brazil will be their quarter-final opponents. These scenarios depend on Brazil and Germany winning their groups, but if they fail to do so things could become very interesting.

The odds on England to win the World Cup are 14/1, while Germany are 19/5 and Brazil 5/1. What will those odds look like after the group phase?

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Warren Barner
@warren_barner in World Cup