Gareth Southgate is presently performing a complex balancing act: he’s simultaneously attempting to guide England into Sunday’s World Cup final, while being forced to stave off rising — and potentially crippling — expectations for his young squad, but also using his side’s trip to Wednesday’s semifinal as a motivational point for various iterations of the national team.
[ MORE: France edge past Belgium to reach World Cup final ]
Such is the task the manager must meet head on when the Three Lions suddenly — but expectedly — become one of the feel-good stories and most endearing sides at a major tournament. It’s an identity and mentality that Southgate and Co., have been working to forge over a number of years and tournaments at various youth levels — quotes from the Guardian:
“I’ve been involved in all the plans really, right through the age groups. To have seen our younger teams have success they have has been hugely rewarding.
“We know our academies at club level are producing really good players, technically good players. We made a lot of changes with the national teams that helped us be successful. We believe we have to continue doing that, to constantly evolve and improve. With this team, it’s the same. The experiences of the last few weeks, the milestones they’ve hit, will be a great reference point moving forward. The more big games we’re involved in, the more pressure situations they’re involved in and emerge from successful, the more belief it will build.
“We have a core group of young players in this squad we believe will take us forward, and others coming through the age-group teams with good experiences who have belief they can win, but also expectations that we should be in quarterfinals, semifinals and finals more regularly. That’s what we wanted to do with our younger teams. All of that work is great but you really have to achieve at senior level in the end for that to be fulfilled. And we have a great opportunity now to get to a World Cup final.”
As for what he expects from the Three Lions beyond this World Cup, Southgate firmly believes that “this team is nowhere near the level they’re going to be capable of”:
“Sometimes you have to go through difficult times as a team, and failures, to learn and to improve. There were a lot of young players involved in the team two years ago who suffered a huge disappointment, and we could have ignored that and tried to be positive and look to the future. But we felt it was important to learn from it, unpack it a bit, and find out why we’d gone so long without winning a knockout game.
“We’ve been fortunate the FA has backed us financially to bring in a lot of staff, experts in lots of fields: physical, medical, coaching, to offer good support for the players. We’ve planned really well, and learned as much as we can. We’re starting to see through the age groups some success because of that, but it’s an ongoing process. This team is nowhere near the level they’re going to be capable of, partly because of their age, but also because they’ll have more big-match experiences over the next few years. We are excited about the future, but we want to make the most of this opportunity as well.”
Here’s the good news for Manchester United supporters: David De Gea played incredibly well for Spain in its EURO qualifier on Tuesday as La Furia Roja clinched a place in EURO 2020.
The bad news? The performance was truncated, with De Gea limping off the pitch and replaced by Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga in the 60th minute.
[ MORE: EURO qualifying wrap ]
De Gea appeared to injure himself while attempting a goal kick of all things, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be wondering what fresh hell awaits him next.
Perhaps that’s simply the fact that Liverpool visits Old Trafford on Sunday in a match that Solskjaer previously said was perhaps ideal for his reeling Red Devils.
Solskjaer would turn to Sergio Romero should De Gea been unable to play at the weekend. Lee Grant is United’s third goalkeeper with Dean Henderson on loan to Sheffield United.
United was already going to need a lot of help to beat back the unbeaten Reds.
Spain clinched a spot in EURO 2020 via a last-minute equalizer, but the rest of the picture only got murkier thanks to dramatics in Romania and Switzerland.)
[ MORE: How should USMNT line up? ]
Sweden 1-1 Spain
A Marcus Berg header had Sweden on the verge of a significant home win against nearly unbeatable David De Gea and Spain, but Valencia forward Rodrigo delivered a stoppage time goal to give Robert Moreno’s men a place in EURO 2020. But Sweden can breathe a little easier thanks to a stoppage time goal across the continent.
Bad news for Manchester United, though, as De Gea’s strong day ended early due to injury.
Romania 1-1 Norway
New York City FC’s Alexandru Mitrita added another beauty to his collection in scoring for the second successive qualifier, but it wouldn’t stand up thanks to former Crystal Palace striker Alexander Sorloth‘s stoppage time equalizer.
Switzerland 2-0 Republic of Ireland
Terrible from the Irish, who trailed after 16 minutes and then went down to 10 men when Seamus Coleman was shown a red card in the 76th minute. Former West Ham man Edimilson Fernandes put it to bed in stoppage time as the Swiss out-attempted Ireland 20-9.
The Irish are tied for the lead in the group with 12 points but that’s about where the good news ends. They do not have an automatic spot in the playoffs while Denmark does and has 12 points. Switzerland has 11 and has also played one fewer match.
Ireland will need to beat Denmark next month and hope for help on the out-of-town scoreboard when Switzerland meets Gibraltar and Georgia.
Finland 3-0 Armenia
Norwich City striker Teemu Pukki continued his fine year with a pair of goals after Fredrik Jensen staked the Finnish side to a lead in Turku. Group J second place side Finland has a five-point lead on chasing Armenia and BNH.
Faroe Islands 1-0 Malta
Gibraltar 2-3 Georgia
Greece 2-1 Bosnia and Herzegovina
Liechtenstein 0-5 Italy
Israel 3-1 Latvia
The upper echelon of the USWNT player pool, especially the veteran generation, just swims in a different competitive gene pool.
Comments from a recent podcast featuring Carli Lloyd are the latest evidence of this, as the USWNT legend calls not starting regularly at this summer’s World Cup “the worst time of my life.”
[ MORE: How should USMNT line up? ]
She says she was happy to be a part of it and happy for her teammates but doesn’t back down from the “worst” diagnosis. Yeah, you read that right.
“I’m not going to lie and sugarcoat it,” Lloyd said on Julie Foudy’s Laughter Permitted podcast. “It was absolutely the worst time of my life. It affected my relationship with my husband, with friends. It really was rock bottom of my entire career. But somehow, you see light at the end of the tunnel, and I can honestly say I’m having more fun now playing than I ever have in my career. I think I just learned a lot throughout it.”
To be fair, Lloyd hasn’t backed up anyone in almost a decade and has since won a Ballon d’Or. Not many elite athletes get used to being second (or fourth) fiddle, especially on a major stage like that.
The personalities on this team are as big as any produced by Ronaldo’s Brazil or Zidane’s France. Some may laugh at this, but it shows what a tremendous job Jill Ellis did in marshaling the team to two-straight World Cups, the first with Abby Wambach in a sub’s role and the second with Lloyd.
It also shows the marvelous competitive nature of Lloyd and the resilience of players who know they’d start for any number of teams in the world. Lloyd says in the podcast that she believed she was playing at near her best level despite being moved from midfielder to forward.
Obviously no player prefers a sub’s role to starting, but — wow — if it isn’t bewildering to hear Lloyd talk about her supporting role at age 37 being the worst time of her life. Different types.
Premier League leaders Liverpool have been handed a huge boost ahead of their massive clash at bitter rivals Manchester United on Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).
Remember: Liverpool are eight points clear atop the table and United sit in 12th, so Jurgen Klopp‘s men are keen to rub salt further into the wounds of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s Red Devils.
Alisson and Joel Matip both returned to training at Melwood, with Alisson recovering from a calf injury which he suffered on the opening day of the season.
The Brazilian goalkeeper has been missing after limping out of the 4-1 win against Norwich City on Aug. 9, and his return to full fitness will bolster this already stingy Liverpool defense. Adrian has performed admirably, albeit with a few errors, in Alisson’s absence but it is now time for the superstar goalkeeper to return to action.
As for Matip, the towering center back suffered an injury against Sheffield United and missed Liverpool’s UEFA Champions League win against Red Bull Salzburg and their narrow Premier League victory against Leicester City.
Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren have both come in for Matip but neither have been solid enough and the former Schalke star will slot straight back in alongside Virgil Van Dijk and bring a steadying influence to the entire defensive line. Matip has been sensational this season, just as everyone expected Gomez to take his starting spot.
Another situation to keep an eye on is the fitness of Mohamed Salah, as he trained on his own at Melwood. Salah was caught with a rash challenge by Hamza Choudhury at the end of Liverpool’s win over Leicester and suffered an ankle injury.
Klopp was incandescent with rage about the foul on Salah and it appears the Egyptian winger is in a race against time to be fit for the clash against Man United, although he is reportedly looking good to play at Old Trafford on Sunday.
With the fitness of Paul Pogba, Luke Shaw Anthony Martial, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and others a constant struggle for United in recent weeks, Solskjaer hasn’t had much help in that department.
Having Alisson and Matip back is great news for Liverpool and Klopp.