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England should reach quarterfinals after generous World Cup draw

Stewart Robson feels England lucked out and got a fairly easy group that contains Belgium, Panama and Tunisia.
The ESPN FC panel feel England should emerge from Group G, but first must overcome the fear factor of World Cups.
Dan Thomas and the FC crew believe the top-seeded countries will all be delighted with their matchups at the World Cup.

Gareth Southgate will be respectful and considered when assessing England's opponents in Group G, but having been paired with Belgium, Tunisia and World Cup debutants Panama, he will privately be punching the air in celebration. But that is not necessarily a good thing from England's point of view.

The biggest threat to their hopes of progression to the knock-out stages will be complacency, and that ultimately proved their downfall, in humiliating fashion, when eliminated from Euro 2016 by Iceland.

England tend not to beat the big nations at major tournaments. When it comes to previous winners, they have only beaten Argentina, in the 2002 group stage, since winning the World Cup in 1966 -- so finding themselves in with Belgium from Pot 1 is a positive result for Southgate, despite the undoubted quality that Roberto Martinez's squad possess.

There will be no inferiority complex on England's part when they tackle the Belgians in Kaliningrad on June 28: only healthy levels of respect for the likes of Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Romelu Lukaku and Toby Alderweireld. But Southgate must find a way to ensure that Tunisia and Panama are treated with the same respect in the opening two group games because everybody outside of those two countries will expect England to win comfortably.

England manager Gareth Southgate has a conundrum about whether to go with youth or experience next summer.

Tunisia are first up, in Volgograd on June 18, and there will be memories of England's 1998 World Cup opening game win against the same opponents in Marseille. Currently 28th in the FIFA rankings, Tunisia are at their first World Cup since 2006 but haven't won at the finals since 1978.

With a squad largely made up of players from Tunisian clubs Esperance and Etoile du Sahel, they also lack top-level pedigree. Wahbi Khazri is perhaps their best-known player after two years at Sunderland, but it is a squad without star quality.

The same applies to Panama, who sneaked into the finals at the expense of the United States courtesy of their "ghost goal" against Costa Rica. Ranked 59th in the world by FIFA. Panama scored just nine goals in their final 10 qualifiers; their threat does not lie in their attacking play. Breaking Panama down will be England's challenge, but with Tunisia and Panama cast in the roles of minnows, England must perform as they did in their qualifying campaign, where they were efficient rather than stylish.

Recent World Cups have seen England fail to defeat the likes of the United States, Algeria and Costa Rica in the group stages, and that is the risk that comes with facing Tunisia and Panama. Southgate's understated approach will help, however, with the former England midfielder not prone to over-hyping his team. But with a group of emerging young players to complement the likes of Harry Kane, Eric Dier, John Stones and Raheem Sterling, England certainly possess the quality and depth to target at least a quarterfinal spot.

If they reach the last eight, they are likely to face Germany or Brazil, but a quarterfinal appearance would be their best performance since 2006, and that should be the realistic expectation in Russia. The question for Southgate is whether he goes with inexperience in the shape of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Nathaniel Chalobah and Harry Winks, or plays it safe by handing international reprieves to Chris Smalling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Daniel Sturridge and even Theo Walcott.

Southgate is likely to be bold and give youth a chance, but the games against Tunisia and Panama will present different challenges than the more obvious test that Belgium will pose, and sometimes experience is a greater commodity than youthful exuberance against dogged, well-organised opponents.

England have the players to expect progression from their group, however. Defensively, they possess outstanding full-backs in Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, with Stones and Phil Jones also improving under their respective managers at Manchester City and Manchester United this season. Dier is a certainty for the defensive midfield role, while going forward, Adam Lallana, Sterling, Kane, Marcus Rashford and Dele Alli give England genuine attacking threat.

Question marks remain over England's ability to dictate a game from midfield and keep possession against the stronger teams, but nobody is realistically expecting them to win the competition. After two dismal World Cups in Brazil and South Africa, England simply need to be a quarterfinal team again, and in Russia, they really should be.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_


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