World Cup Group G: England may have to settle for second
England should comfortably progress from a lopsided Group G but lack of goals suggests it may not be as winners, says Dave Tindall...
"Martinez may not have the nous for the knockout rounds if Belgium come up against someone tactically cuter but they smashed in 43 goals in their 10 qualifiers, only once netting less than two in a game. All the evidence says they’ll outscore England and that’s a fair reason to make them group favourites."
The betting says England will cruise through the group and play a maximum of one or two games after that (the England stage of elimination market makes Last 16 and Quarter Final the 15/8 joint favourites).
First things first though. Is finishing in the top two a formality? The odds say a resounding yes with the outright Group betting showing Belgium at 8/13, England 13/10, Tunisia 22/1 and Panama 45/1.
To give that context, the highest priced third-favourite in any other group is 13/1 and highest-priced underdog 33/1. In Group H, Japan are fourth in the betting but priced at just 13/2 so England's group is considered the most clear-cut in terms of who will advance.
England should benefit from the order of matches too. Last time when they flopped under Roy Hodgson, they opened with games against Italy and Uruguay and narrowly lost both.
This time, they play Tunisia first and Panama second so should have six points or four at the very least after two games before the likely group decider against Belgium.
England racked up eight wins and two draws in their qualifying campaign but that was probably about par for the course given that Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta were in opposition.
The Slovenians and Lithuanians were also in England's qualifying group for the 2016 Euros and Hodgson's men won 10 out of 10. Fat lot of good that did them when they bottled it against Iceland in the real thing!
One obvious difference from recent qualifying campaigns is that England managed just 18 goals compared to 31 in both 2014 and 2016.
Despite the presence of Harry Kane, finding the net doesn't come easily to this squad and the trend has continued in recent friendlies. Since edging out Lithuania in the final qualifier, England have drawn 0-0 with both Germany and Brazil, edged out the Netherlands 1-0 and drawn 1-1 with Italy.
The other side of the coin is that that they've looked very solid in defence with Gareth Southgate employing three at the back. Italy netted from the spot so England haven't conceded from open play in their last six games.
There are doubts over the collective inexperience of goalkeeping trio Jordan Pickford, Jack Butland and Nick Pope while the midfield seven of Dele Alli, Fabian Delph, Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson, Jess Lingard, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ashley Young hardly smack of a golden generation.
Up front, Raheem Sterling could be a star if the tabloids decide to stop hounding him while Jamie Vardy's habit of scoring against the big teams means he could be a really serious weapon off the bench further down the line.
For now though, England's meagre goal output suggests they'll have to bank more points than the free-scoring Belgians if they're to top the group and that would surely mean winning the decider in Kaliningrad on June 28.
A draw looks likely based on recent evidence and England to win 7 Group Points looks a fair bet at 3/1 (Sportsbook). A draw against Tunisia and beating Belgium would be another pathway to that total.
For this crop of Belgian players, read England from the middle part of the last decade - Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes, Terry, Owen, Cole, Campbell, Neville and an emerging striker called Rooney.
But that so-called Golden Generation never got past the quarter-finals of a major tournament and Belgium's version are at risk of falling short in similar disappointing fashion.
On paper the Belgians are oozing with talent. They have a top-class goalkeeper in Thibaut Courtois, quality defenders in the shape of Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, midfield dynamism via Kevin De Bruyne and Mousa Dembele and a potent attack featuring Eden Hazard behind the prolific Romelu Lukaku.
Perhaps seven of their starting XI will come from the Premier League's elite clubs although that in itself represents a red flag.
We're told so often that the helter-skelter of the Premier League leaves England's players physically spent by the World Cup finals and that a winter break is needed. Well, if that's the case, fatigue and loss of sharpness will apply to Belgium's English-based stars too.
Belgium fell to Argentina in the quarter-finals of the last World Cup in South America - no particular disgrace in that - but losing to Wales in the last eight of the 2016 Euros is much harder to sweep under the carpet.
They won five of their six group games across those two tournaments so any mental weaknesses are likely to be revealed later and an opener against Panama gives Roberto Martinez's men the chance to rack up a few and build some early confidence.
Martinez may not have the nous for the knockout rounds if Belgium come up against someone tactically cuter but they smashed in 43 goals in their 10 qualifiers, only once netting less than two in a game. All the evidence says they'll outscore England and that's a fair reason to make them group favourites.
Mo Salah's heroics and the presence of Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt in this World Cup shows that this is a good time for North African football.
Tunisia don't have anything resembling a Salah though and England and Belgium are more likely to experience frustration rather than fear when taking on the Tunisians.
Their strengths lie in defence and organisation as shown by the concession of just four goals in six qualifying games although they did benefit from weak opposition.
And don't rule out a fair chunk of spirit too. Despite managing just three shots on target, they came from 2-0 down after 34 minutes to draw 2-2 at European champions Portugal last week.
Tunisia won their first ever game in a World Cup finals (3-1 v Mexico) in 1978 but are winless in 11 matches since, losing seven.
Is there a route out of the group this time? Low-scoring draws against the Big Two and a win over Panama coupled with a positive result in the England v Belgium game could just do it but it's asking a lot.
They're a better team than Panama though so Tunisia look a good bet to slot in at third place - an Even Money chance
It's a superb achievement to reach the finals given that the population of Panama is just three million but they did so with a negative goal difference in their six-team group featuring Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, the USA and Trinidad & Tobago.
Home wins over Mexico and the USA were the key and they only lost 1-0 in the away match in Mexico.
Other positives include a 1-1 draw against Wales in Cardiff and a narrow 1-0 defeat in Denmark, the goal coming after Panama had a man sent off in the 66th minute.
Of more concern to the World Cup debutants is the 4-0 loss to the USA and March's 6-0 thumping in Switzerland when they were 5-0 down after 49 minutes.
On that performance, the 8/13 about Panama finishing bottom of the group could be very reasonable indeed.