Stern test for Southgate, team
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Stern test for Southgate, team

The word "pressure" is overused in football but there will be no one under more pressure than England manager Gareth Southgate as he leads the Three Lions into Euro 24 this weekend. England begin their tournament tomorrow against Serbia in Gelsenkirchen and will later face Denmark and Slovenia in Group C.

Being runners-up to Italy in the last Euro played in 2021 owing to Covid, England are in the rare situation of going into a tournament as one of the favourites which is a burden of expectation they do not need. They don't look very comfortable with it at the moment, although they are expected to progress through the group stages. The reality is that they haven't won a trophy since 1966.

Many think France are a good bet followed by Germany on their home soil, Portugal and Spain.

There is no question England have some of the most talented players in Europe, but getting them to gel is another matter. With Jude Bellingham (Real Madrid), Harry Kayne (Bayern Munich), Phil Foden (Manchester City) and Cole Palmer (Chelsea) in the squad Southgate has the backbone of a potentially powerful team. However in recent performances the defence has looked decidedly fragile, partly because they haven't played together very much.

Southgate knows he has to find the right balance between caution and attacking play and it will be no surprise if he opts for caution in the opening stages.

England's final warm-up game did not exactly inspire confidence, losing 0-1 at home to Iceland and only managing one shot on target against a team ranked 72nd in the world. This did not amuse the fans at Wembley who didn't need reminding that Iceland were responsible for one of England's most humiliating results ever in Euro 2016.

Not surprisingly the unforgiving newspapers weighed in, the Mirror leading the way with the headline "Ice Scream" while the Sun deemed the display "Awful" suggesting that England were "haunted by the ghost of Euros past." The Telegraph took a more sober approach with a cautionary "Reality Check" while even the New York Times called it a "demoralising defeat."

It was too much for former England defender Matt Upson who called their display "boring and dismal."

Of course in the early stages of a tournament performance doesn't matter so much as results and England's one aim is to finish top of the group, even if it means playing ugly.

Southgate has plenty of critics but some can be accused of having short memories. He took over in 2016 from Sam Allardyce whose reign lasted just one match with England in a mess. Before that Roy Hodgson has lost the job after the Euro 16 debacle.

During his tenure Southgate has taken England to the 2018 World Cup semi-final, the Euro 2020 final and the 2022 World Cup quarter-final where they lost 2-1 to France. It has hardly been a disaster.

Southgate knows what's at stake. Earlier this week he commented: "If we want to be a big team and I want to be a top coach then you have to deliver in the big moments."

The other British team to have qualified, Scotland, had a more encouraging warm-up performance at Hampden Park against Finland but somehow threw away a two-goal lead to draw 2-2. Scotland of course had the doubtful honour of facing Germany in the tournament's opener last night. With Switzerland and Hungary also in their group Steve Clarke's side will have to be at their best if they are to progress.

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