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Gareth Southgate relishing England’s quarter-final ‘acid test’ against France

Gareth Southgate England face World Cup holders France next (Mike Egerton/PA)
Gareth Southgate England face World Cup holders France next (Mike Egerton/PA)

Gareth Southgate is relishing England’s “acid test” against reigning champions France in Saturday’s blockbuster World Cup quarter-final clash.

Having topped Group B without much fuss, the 2018 semi-finalists opened the knockout phase with a comfortable 3-0 victory against Senegal in Sunday’s last-16 encounter.

England overcame heightened expectations and a bright start by the African champions at Al Bayt Stadium, where they will return this weekend to take on what Southgate called “the very best” in Qatar.

“We’ve got a brilliant tie, haven’t we?” the England boss said of the quarter-final against World Cup holders France.

“The two quarter-finals are fabulous football nations, great history, couldn’t be more exciting.

“Our history is not quite as good as all the others, by the way, but we’re really pleased.

“I’ve just been told it’s the first time we’ve won knockout games in three consecutive tournaments.

“That’s another bit of history that this team has managed to achieve and we’ve got to keep trying to do that.”

Four years ago England’s World Cup dreams were extinguished at the semi-final stage with an extra-time loss to Croatia, which they followed up by reaching last year’s European Championship final.

Those runs underlined their progress but Southgate has always stressed the need to start beating elite nations on a regular basis if they are to become the best side in the world.

“You know, this is the acid test for us,” the England boss told BBC Radio 5 Live. “We know it’s a step up from everything we’ve had so far.

“But the team have garnered so much experience in the last few years. They’re playing with confidence.

“We look threatening, we’re scoring goals, another clean sheet, which was really pleasing to see.

“So, we’re in a good place, but we know the level of the opposition as well.”

Southgate’s selection and set-up will be discussed in great detail ahead of the quarter-final against star-studded France.

Harry Kane celebrates
Harry Kane got off the mark in Qatar against Senegal just before the break (Martin Rickett/PA)

But while Les Bleus have Kylian Mbappe, England have Harry Kane.

The 29-year-old produced three assists in the group stage and got off the mark in Qatar against Senegal, with the 2018 Golden Boot winner lashing home on the stroke of half-time.

“I think for any striker when you haven’t scored it is there in the back of your mind, and you get that lift of confidence when it comes,” Southgate said in the post-match press conference.

“It was great. There’s still nobody I’d rather have in that moment, bearing down on goal and a really clinical finish, so that will do him the world of good.

“The great thing for us is that the goals have been spread, we’ve not been dependent on him.

“I think we have only a couple of goals from set plays as well, which in the past was a huge percentage of our goals.

“So, it’s great that we are showing another side to our attacking play.”

England’s “ruthlessness” delighted Southgate in Al Khor, where Kane found the net shortly after Jordan Henderson opened the scoring on a night that Bukayo Saka rounded off.

The 52-year-old was full of praise of his midfielders after the last-16 win and this is the “best version” he has seen of vice-captain Henderson, who is helping to unlock Jude Bellingham’s potential.

The nascent star, still only 19, flourished in Al Khor, where he provided the assist for the opener and went on a surging run that led to Kane’s goal at the end of the first half.

Jude Bellingham celebrates
Jude Bellingham provided the assist for the opener on Sunday (Adam Davy/PA)

“Well, I don’t think we could have predicted how quickly he would mature,” Southgate said of Bellingham. “Even in the last six months, that’s gone to another level – or the last three months, in fact.

“I think the view we have always taken is we have wanted to invest in young players on the basis that we felt that they could be something special in the future. That’s bringing them into the group.

“It means that the likes of Bukayo have got 20-odd caps already, coming into a tournament like this. (Declan) Rice was in at 19.

“So, you suffer a bit with that at times because they are not going to be perfect when they come in.

“But you get a feel of them with the group, you can see the mentality, you can see the comfort and so, of course, further down the line you get the types of performances that we’re getting.

“The three youngest today we felt had earned that opportunity and had earned that trust in a game of this size.

“And we wanted to give them their head. And they’ve shown great maturity and all contributed in their own way.”