Gareth Southgate is embracing the increased expectations and selection headaches as England begin the World Cup knockout phase with a tough clash against Senegal.
All eyes will be on cavernous Al Bayt Stadium on Sunday as the Group B winners play their first knockout match on the world stage since the agonising extra-time semi-final loss to Croatia in 2018.
England built on that performance by winning bronze at the following year’s Nations League before going on a memorable run to last year’s European Championship final at Wembley.
The heart-breaking penalty shootout defeat to Italy provides added motivation for Southgate’s players, who head into their last-16 clash with Senegal high on confidence.
“I guess the biggest thing is the expectation levels and the satisfaction levels,” Southgate said. “In Russia, when we qualified from the group stage, we were probably more excited than we were this time.
“Although we enjoyed the win against Wales. You’ve got to enjoy your wins because, if you don’t enjoy those, then there’s not a lot of point being in this, frankly.
“And then, of course, everything was geared around first knockout win for 10 years, so that was almost our objective in Russia.
“We have to take a step at a time, the same thing. We talked about that from the beginning of the tournament.
“Our first objective was to qualify from the group. We knew we had three games to do that.
“There was an awful lot of noise after our second, but we stayed calm and on track, and we’ve qualified as well as anybody else has.
“But we’re now on to the more important part of the competition and we’ve got to get this bit right as well.”
Southgate has some selection conundrums to consider on Sunday.
Marcus Rashford, who could win his 50th cap, scored a brilliant brace in Tuesday’s 3-0 win against Wales, when Phil Foden capped a fine performance with a goal.
Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka dropped to the bench, while Kyle Walker and Jordan Henderson also played well having been brought into the England line-up.
“It’s a good position to be in,” Southgate said. “You want your players in confident mood and our forward players are.
“Of course you want to try to make the best possible decision, but in some respects I’m not sure there’s a right or a wrong. Whichever players we start with, we’re going to need the bench, we need the strength.
“They all offer different attributes and it’s just trying to get the balance of the team right and make the best possible decisions.
“But for us great that we’ve got the whole squad fit and available, feeling good about themselves, but with that nice balance of knowing how difficult it was to get through this round in our last two tournaments.
“We know the quality of the opposition, but we’ve got belief in ourselves as well.”
Southgate spoke glowingly about Senegal, a side without star turn Sadio Mane through injury but buoyed by February’s Africa Cup of Nations triumph.
“Sadio is obviously an incredible player and every team would want to have him,” the England boss said.
“But what we’ve seen from the team of Senegal, they’ve become very strong in his absence. And they have shown great spirit through losing him.
“So we know it doesn’t make a difference to the level of the fixture for tomorrow.
“We’ve got to be prepared for the game and we’ve got to be at our very best to be able to win the game.”
Senegal head coach Aliou Cisse was unable to fulfil his press conference duties on Saturday due to illness, raising the possibility of him missing the last-16 clash.
Southgate wished him a speedy recovery but fully expects him to be at Al Bayt Stadium, where the winner will return for the quarter-finals.
France are expected to come through their last-16 clash with Poland to provide the opposition, but Southgate immediately halted talk of a potential clash against the world champions.
“My answer won’t take long,” the England boss said. “We play Senegal tomorrow. Nothing else. There’s nothing else to discuss.”
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