After a couple of impressive friendly results, we’ve reached the point in the England World Cup cycle where people are starting to think ‘maybe? Could they? You can’t rule it out’.
And it’s fair. Based on draws with Germany and Brazil, and on going through the entire qualification campaign without losing a single match, England should be contenders.
However, that ignores the other variable: lads, it’s England.
Still, that isn’t going to stop people from looking at the seeding pots for the tournament and daring to dream.
Now, most of us have long enough memories to recall the front-page headlines when England were drawn with Algeria, Slovenia and the United States in 2010.
‘EASY’, they said, as in ‘England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks’. And England won one of their three group games before being torn apart by Germany in the second round.
That’s one more game than Roy Hodgson’s team won in 2014, when they took just one point from games against Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica.
If that tells us anything, it’s that England are just as capable of ballsing up easy groups as they are falling apart in tough ones, but that’s not to say we can’t hope for the best chance possible of progressing.
The Easiest Option
Yes, Russia might be hosts, and they might be backed by a vocal home crowd, but they’re comfortably the weakest of the eight top seeds.
France might have stumbled against Luxembourg in qualifying, and Poland might be overly reliant on Robert Lewandowski, but the worst team at Euro 2016 (albeit one which England failed to beat there) should present less of a challenge than any others.
In pot three, a third European team is ruled out due to the laws of the draw, but no bother.
Tunisia only narrowly held off the Democratic Republic of Congo in a not-that-tough qualifying group and, while there’s talent in their squad, they are without a win in each of their last three World Cup finals tournaments.
That leaves Saudi Arabia or Panama in pot four. The Saudis only crept into the tournament, finishing above Australia on goal difference after a qualifying campaign that included defeats to the UAE, and their last three World Cup campaigns featured a combined two draws and seven defeats.
Panama, meanwhile, have an experienced-but-ageing squad – it is conceivable that eight of their 23-man roster have 80 or more caps. This means it will be both the first and last chance for many of their squad to impress on the world stage, but there’s every chance they end up just making up the numbers after sneaking into the tournament.
The Hardest Option
While there are plenty of tough ones to pick from in pot one, Brazil – despite only drawing with England at Wembley – may well be the toughest when push comes to shove.
Tite’s team have bounced back phenomenally from that 2014 humiliation against Germany, going 17 games unbeaten in a stacked South American qualifying group after losing their opening match to Chile.
They’re unbeaten in World Cup group stage matches since 1998, which tells you all you need to know about the prospect of facing them early on.
Germany might have also been a tough task in round one, but that would mean England couldn’t have drawn their Euro 2016 nemeses Iceland.
Revenge might be a big motivator, but at the same time Gareth Southgate’s team could get flashbacks and freeze against the last team to knock them out of a major tournament. No pun intended.
Alternatively, drawing Germany from pot one would open up the prospect of Costa Rica, who reached the quarter-finals four years ago via a goalless draw against England.
Pot four shouldn’t throw up any problems, but this is England we’re dealing with here. Serbia could present a test, though that would require England to face one of the non-European pot three sides.
Instead, Morocco may be the toughest opponent in the pot. As well as having the tournament’s best-looking manager in Hervé Renard, they made it through a qualifying group containing Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon and Mali not only unbeaten, but without conceding a single goal. After the bore-draw against their neighbours Algeria in 2010, England could well be in for more of the same.
(Images: Rex Features)