(Reuters) – World Cup semi-finalists in 2018, European Championship runners-up last year, England were surfing a wave of optimism, but the wheels have come off spectacularly and they now look anything but potential winners in Qatar.
Friday’s 1-0 defeat in Italy relegated them from the top tier of the Nations League after a campaign in which they lost twice to Hungary – including 4-0 at Wembley – and once to Italy along with two scrambled draws.
Their only goal in five games was a late Harry Kane penalty against Germany and they will hardly be brimming with confidence for the return match at home on Monday.
Manager Gareth Southgate had a relatively settled side during the Euros, when England posed threats from all over the pitch and were solid at the back.
After this sorry run, however, there are only a handful of players who can be confident of making the starting 11 in Qatar and the coach now seems unsure of his best system.
His oft-quoted policy of picking on form has shown to be hollow after he started Harry Maguire on Friday despite the center back barely getting a game at Manchester United.
His chopped and changed midfield failed miserably to get hold of the game – despite Declan Rice’s faintly bizarre claim that England had controlled it.
Jude Bellingham, still only 19 despite all his experience for Borussia Dortmund, probably did as much as anyone to enhance his World Cup prospects while Kane remains a world-class threat if he can stay fit and Reece James remains ever-reliable.
However, Raheem Sterling struggled for impact, as did Southgate’s undroppable favorite Bukayo Saka and ineffective substitute Jack Grealish.
Even the ultra-reliable Kyle Walker had an off night, giving Giacomo Raspadori way too much time to pick his spot from just inside the box and score the winner midway through the second half.
After the shocking 4-0 defeat by Hungary in June the crowd turned on Southgate and there were boos again from the visiting fans as he stood to applaud them on Friday.
Never a man to get too carried away by good or bad displays, he was surprisingly upbeat.
“For large parts of the game we played very well – lots of good individual performances,” he said. “I personally thought the performance is a step in the right direction. I completely understand because of the result that that is not going to be the reaction.”
Monday’s Wembley appointment with Germany, who lost 1-0 at home to Hungary on Friday, is his last chance to rediscover the fizz that had the whole country behind him a little over a year ago, before embarking in November on the latest attempt to end what is now 56 years of hurt.
The good news for him is that England have landed a relatively soft World Cup group and with the fixtures in the order he would have wanted. They start against Iran, then face the United States before what is likely to be a scrap, but one they should win, against Wales.
The class in the squad should prevail but, with a likely quarter-final meeting with France on the cards, there will need to be a radical uptick in form if England are to match or improve on their 2018 run to the last four.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond)