England’s players refuse to be daunted by life in the harder half of the draw for the knockout stages at the European Championship, with the vice-captain Gary Cahill insisting that no team have stamped their authority on a tournament that remains “wide open”.
The goalless draw against Slovakia in Saint-Étienne meant England finished second in Group B, behind Wales, and face a last-16 tie against Iceland in Nice on Monday. Although England will go into that fixture as favourites to reach the quarter-finals, life will become considerably more awkward thereafter, with the teams in the bottom half of the draw having won 20 major titles – 11 World Cups and nine European Championships – between them. France would appear to be likely opponents in the last eight unless the Republic of Ireland can repeat the heroics they managed against Italy.
Yet, though frustrated at not topping the group, Roy Hodgson’s players are confident they can impose themselves on the tournament. “There are certainly teams who have impressed me but I do think it’s wide open,” said Cahill. “You see the French, Spanish and Germans who are always there, but is there one team that is going to run away with it? I don’t think there is.
“You see how hard teams are having to work, like the French in the second game [against Albania]. It was 2-0 and seemed like an easy game, but it was far from an easy game going into the last five minutes [when the score was still 0-0]. Everyone is fighting to the death so it’s very tough. We should be pleased with what we are doing, no two ways about it, apart from the obvious, putting the ball in the back of the net. But everything you look for – commitment, playing with confidence, creating chances – is there.”
Elite teams, including the hosts, have laboured at times and Spain finished second in their group, behind Croatia, and now play Antonio Conte’s Italy on Monday. England’s players had a day off on Wednesday, with some taking to a local golf course in Chantilly, and they hope to benefit from the week between their final group fixture and the next game. They will conduct an open training session on Thursday morning as thoughts turn to Iceland.
“We’ll have had seven days to prepare for it and I think that’s a good thing for us,” said Cahill, who has recovered from a blow to a hip sustained against Slovakia. “The tournament, the intensity it has been played at, is demanding and seven days gives you time to shake off any niggles and stuff and leave us good to go. We’ve finished second now and we have to deal with that and move forward. We have to go again and show the same mentality that we’ve shown in the first three games.
“You want a team to come out and play against you a bit more because, from what I’ve seen [against Slovakia], they played five at the back and four across midfield, and it’s very difficult. I’m not making excuses because we’ve had the majority of chances in Saint-Étienne and the stats show that we should be winning the game. But the positives are all there. We are going out there on the front foot and taking the game to them. I’ve never been involved in such a one-sided game as that second half and in the next game we should go out there and do something similar.”
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