It is that time of year when cautious optimism begins to creep in. The tide turns on England’s prospects, the no hopers become the outside bet. Maybe this group of players, under this manager can perform at a major tournament?
In many ways, it is the same this time around, despite Lorenzo Insigne’s late penalty at Wembley to deny England a sixth successive clean sheet. Gareth Southgate’s inauspicious start has been largely forgotten, as England have become a defensive force and a side with attacking verve, not overly reliant on Harry Kane. The manager is at ease with the press, his players look comfortable and he commands the respect of his men.
A friendly victory over the Netherlands and a draw with Italy may look on paper as solid results, but these are two powerhouses of international football a long way from their best. Not even football heritage could book the Dutch and Italians a ticket to Russia.
Meanwhile, other pre-tournament favourites look streets ahead, with Germany and Spain, in particular, dazzling when playing each other, while Argentina and Brazil look rather ominously to be finding their form.
There is no denying that this England side has quality: Kane, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Jamie Vardy are players many World Cup nations would love to call on. Jesse Lingard has particularly impressed in these two games, a nice finish against the Netherlands and quick thinking against Italy bringing him a goal and assist. He seems to be developing a good understanding with Sterling, but will those partnerships up top click in time?
Southgate’s preference for three at the back, and a desire to play out from defence, is admirable, but for all John Stones’ improvements under Pep Guardiola, he still looks error-prone. Jordan Pickford is a fine goalkeeper, but asking him to play that role seems fraught with risk. Is Harry Maguire competent enough to play this style of play against a side like Belgium - a side with players that can really punish England with the likes of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne?
In midfield, Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson lack the passing precision or confidence of English midfielders of old; there is no Scholes or Carrick to anchor this side. Dele Alli blows hot and cold and with the underperforming Jake Livermore still earning a place in the squad, that strength in depth is lacking.
Now is not the time for cautious optimism, but realism. A quarter-final in Russia would represent huge success for a side that last won a knockout game at a major tournament with a 1-0 win over Ecuador in 2006. England won’t win the World Cup in Russia and we would be foolish to believe that they can.