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The countdown to the World Cup in Qatar begins tonight against Switzerland as England focus on dominating the world

THE countdown to the World Cup begins tonight at Wembley Stadium.

England Manager Gareth Southgate is just over halfway through that odd 16-month gap between major tournaments.

Gareth Southgate has been impressed with how side players have reacted to their Euro 2020 heat-break

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Gareth Southgate has been impressed with how side players have reacted to their Euro 2020 heat-breakPhoto credit: Reuters
Arsenal star Bukayo Saka could be huge for England's World Cup hopes

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Arsenal star Bukayo Saka could be huge for England’s World Cup hopesCredit: PA

His backroom team began preparing for the World Cup in Qatar From the moment the team confirmed first place in qualifying with a 10-0 win over San Marino.

On the pitch, however, it feels as if those two friendlies tonight against a decent Swiss side and Tuesday’s Ivory Coast are the real start of what may be a monumental year for the Three Lions.

Southgate was impressed with the way a young squad overcame the trauma of last year’s European Championship final defeat on penalties against Italy.

Results have been decent, although the majority of England players – with a few exceptions such as Declan Rice – are not having particularly good seasons.

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After that painful evening last July, England won five and drew two in World Cup qualifiers.

Italy have just been knocked out of contention by North Macedonia in a play-off after claiming just two wins out of eight since winning Euro 2020.

Southgate revealed: “I said to the players the other day that they will never be under the same pressure as they were last summer.

“They were at a European Championship where most of the matches were played at Wembley and the country hadn’t been in a final for 50 years.

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“They’ve experienced tremendous pressure, that should give them tremendous confidence in what they’re capable of.

“Some players are less likely to have many more tournaments, although they could all go to the next European Championship.

“But for some of the younger ones, they could have four or five more so the immediacy doesn’t feel that way to them.”

Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland made sure of that The team stayed focused in qualifyingalthough it was hardly a difficult group.

As England know from experience, the so-called easy-looking games can be the ones that bite your butt. This happened in Sicily on Thursday, while Southgate discreetly – without naming Iceland – recalled the embarrassing, chaotic events of Euro 2016.

Also referring to September’s 4-0 win in Hungary – England’s first game since the EURO final – Southgate added: “I think our team has recovered from the disappointment of the summer and been able to maintain their performance.

“We wanted to maintain our performances after the World Cup in Russia. We knew if we didn’t do that we would be accused of having an easy draw or whatever it was – a flash in the pan – and the players responded to that in the Nations League that followed.

“They then responded to that at the European Championships and they responded to that again – especially in Budapest – and made sure we nailed qualifying.

“Of course nothing can be taken for granted, but I think part of Thursday’s game (Italy-North Macedonia) ended with fear.

“It’s something we’ve talked about a lot since we took over because we had a game like that in France a few years ago. The game on Thursday reminded me a bit of that.”

Southgate, who has been plagued by a string of injuries, will continue to try to be strong against Switzerland before fielding a more experimental side against Ivory Coast.

DON’T EXPECT ANY SURPRISES

While there are some uncapped players in the current squad, it’s unlikely there will be many surprises when Southgate names their World Cup party, which is likely to feature 26 players.

He added: “At any point in the six years we’ve been in charge, if we had a game tomorrow that we needed to win, we’d know our best 11.

“But in terms of the World Cup, we don’t play tomorrow, so we have to be open to changing circumstances. We lost three players to injury before this camp and seven after we named the squad.

“I can’t imagine November being that dramatic, but you know you could lose several.

“I think all the players were aware that this is an important camp.

“When I spoke to the guys who had to pull out, they realized their disappointment that the tournament was so close and they know we only have six games left after this week.

“The bigger concern is the volume of games close to the tournament.

“It’s a really condensed program with regular midweeks plus the Saturdays so we’re not sure what impact that will have on injuries. The circumstances of this particular tournament are different and the fact that there is a 7-10 day gap between the last league game and the first game of the tournament is quite an extreme situation.

“We have to consider flying, dealing with the time difference, some climate change and trying not to disrupt training patterns too much. Medically there will be some big calls.”

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Of course, all other countries are in the same boat and England are hoping for some luck in the World Cup draw, which takes place in six days’ time.

So next Friday night Qatar 2022 will feel a little bit closer.

https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/football/18073398/countdown-qatar-world-cup-england-switzerland/ The countdown to the World Cup in Qatar begins tonight against Switzerland as England focus on dominating the world

Ashley

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