REPINO, Russia (Reuters) - England manager Gareth Southgate has done his utmost to lower the expectations on his young team at the World Cup but they enter their opening Group G game against Tunisia in a mood of quiet confidence.
After the humiliation of a second round exit at the hands of Iceland in Euro 2016 and their failure to get out of the group stage in Brazil four years ago, England fans were in no mood for rabble rousing talk of winning the tournament.
Indeed a deep cynicism had taken hold of many supporters but Southgate’s humble approach and the youthful nature of his squad has managed to restore some degree of positivity.
“We always do this as a nation — expectations are low and as soon as we get to the World Cup, everybody gets their enthusiasm going. If a World Cup cannot inspire a nation, then I’m not sure what can,” said the English FA technical director Dan Ashworth.
Friendly wins over Nigeria and Costa Rica did no harm to the mood nor did the fact that, unlike so many times in the past, there is little, if any, controversy surrounding the squad.
And it is a squad that has plenty of attacking talent with Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling expected to start up front with Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli buzzing behind them.
That means forwards Marcus Rashford and Jamie Vardy are likely to start on the bench, giving Southgate plenty of options if his chosen strike pair fail to deliver.
The quality is thinner at the back but Southgate is hopeful that players like Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier can turn their Premier League form into solid displays in Russia.
The final group game against Belgium should be the toughest test but England’s recent history will prevent any complacency in the opener with Tunisia or the second game versus World Cup debutantes Panama.
Tunisia are playing in their fifth World Cup but they have never got beyond the group stage and they have not won since they beat Mexico in their first ever game at a finals in 1978.
The North Africans were unbeaten in their World Cup qualifying campaign but had to endure a nervy finish when they drew 0-0 with strugglers Libya to edge out the Democratic Republic of Congo.
England and Tunisia met at France ‘98 with England winning 2-0 thanks to goals from Alan Shearer and Paul Scholes.
Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Ken Ferris