GARETH SOUTHGATE may have to exorcise the Thunderclap ghost that still haunts Roy Hodgson and England.
Instead, hosts Russia will be joined by Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland and France, the leading seven countries in the next set of Fifa world rankings being published on Monday.
Southgate’s England, set to be 12th, will be in the second seeding block.
That at least ensures they cannot play Spain or 2014 group opponents Uruguay and Italy, although they could be drawn with Costa Rica.
But unless Italy, Switzerland and Peru all blow up in play-offs next month, England could be in line for a reunion with their Euro 2016 nemesis Iceland.
They could even be drawn in a group of death with Brazil or Argentina, and possibly Nigeria from Pot 4.
The final seeding pots will not be confirmed until after the remaining nine qualifiers conclude on November 15.
There are four more places up for grabs in Europe, three in Africa and two from the intercontinental play-offs which pit New Zealand against Peru and Honduras with Australia.
Fifa, though, have already announced a change from the previous policy of splitting the qualified teams into geographical sections.
Who could England get?
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Instead, they will use this month’s rankings, taking the points that would be gained in the play-offs out of the equation, to arrange the 32 teams into four sections of eight.
But in a Champions League-style draw, there will only be a maximum of two European teams in any one group.
So England could not get a European third seed — potentially Croatia, Iceland and, if they emerge from the play-offs, Denmark, Sweden and Northern Ireland — unless they were drawn with either of the two South American giants.
A best-case scenario would see them drawn with hosts Russia, Iran and New Zealand.
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England U17 vs Iraq U17: Three Lions look to finish Under-17 World Cup group stages with win in India
Dave Kidd: England are slow, turgid and soulless so Gareth Southgate should stop pleading for pity from Three Lions fans
LIONEL MESSI, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe are all sweating nervously about their participation at the World Cup. Meanwhile, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is on Amazon, buying a rough guide to the wilds outside St Petersburg, trying to discover whether bears are defecating in the woods near England’s remote base camp. Gareth Southgate’s Origami Army have qualified […]
LIONEL MESSI, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe are all sweating nervously about their participation at the World Cup.
Meanwhile, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is on Amazon, buying a rough guide to the wilds outside St Petersburg, trying to discover whether bears are defecating in the woods near England’s remote base camp.
Gareth Southgate’s Origami Army have qualified for Russia while Portugal, France and especially Messi’s Argentina are having to scrap it out at the death.
So as the paper planes rained down on the hallowed NFL-stained turf and as England’s players applauded a largely empty stadium, why did it feel as if we’ve never rejoiced less about England qualifying for a World Cup?
It’s not as if the Three Lions are crushed by the weight of expectations any longer.
Most England fans haven’t expected anything much since the 2010 World Cup trouncing by Germany in Bloemfontein — and many abandoned all hope back in the Steve McClaren era.
Southgate, a veteran of 57 caps, frequently — and correctly — mentions that past England eras are viewed through rose-tinted goggles.
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He did so again after Thursday’s zed-fest, when he recalled how poorly England played against Greece in 2001 before David Beckham’s dramatic late free-kick earned a 2-2 draw and sealed World Cup qualification.
He also remembered England being hammered for a dismal draw in Finland during that same campaign.
He did not, though, mention the unforgettable 5-1 victory over Germany in Munich which made it all worthwhile.
He did not mention how England internationals used to feel like events — occasions to look forward to, rather than ones to endure or ignore.
England used to be maddeningly unpredictable but they were still recognisably part of the entertainment industry.
For some years now they have been crushingly predictable and mind-alteringly dull.
Thursday’s exercise in paper-plane throwing was a wonderfully authentic response to all of this.
You cannot kid the public. If they are not getting their money’s worth they will let you know.
Southgate was left pleading for support, attempting to generate a feeling of pity for his young millionaires.
It was a misguided plea. England may have a smaller talent pool than in Southgate’s playing days but there were nine Champions League players in his starting XI on Thursday and there is no excuse for them to be unwatchable.
The public is beginning to switch off. The official attendance of 61,000 would have been respectable but even the FA blazers in the posh seats were laughing when the figure was announced.
The 90,000-capacity Wembley was barely half-full.
A couple of years ago, FA technical director Dan Ashworth launched ‘the England DNA’ plan to lay down a playing philosophy for all age-group levels.
Yet it is manifestly not in the English DNA to play the sort of slow, turgid, soulless football served up by Southgate’s team throughout most of his 11 games in charge.
Maybe the whole DNA thing was just one of those slogans the FA dreamt up over coffee at their St George’s Park gibberish sanctuary, the result of some weird caffeine high.
Because nobody is entirely sure whether the whole thing has been shredded or whether we’re still supposed to be sticking to it.
What seems certain is that it is counter-productive to stick rigidly to a patient passing game when you have no central midfield players capable of playing an incisive pass.
One solution, worth experimenting with during the coming friendlies, is to move Dele Alli back from No 10, into the deeper role in which he started his Tottenham and England career — simply to fill a gaping hole in Southgate’s resources, where the player Jack Wilshere was supposed to have been might have played.
But while Southgate played the sympathy card on behalf of his players, the FA are currently in danger of talking down England’s chances too much.
Just hours before England secured qualification, chief executive Martin Glenn was accusing his players of being mentally brittle.
This was tough on a team which scored meaningful injury-time goals against all three of their main Group F rivals during the qualifying campaign which ends with tonight’s dead rubber in Lithuania.
But will you be tuning in to watch it? Or have you got some paint-drying to monitor or some paper to fold?
Gareth Southgate gets England legend Alan Shearer to give players pep talk before final World Cup qualifiers
ALAN SHEARER has given a surprise pep talk to England’s stars. The Three Lions legend and SunSport columnist was asked by former team-mate and current boss Gareth Southgate to pass on his advice for staying at the top. Shearer scored 30 goals in 63 appearances for England and Southgate said: “We’ve done this a couple […]
ALAN SHEARER has given a surprise pep talk to England’s stars.
The Three Lions legend and SunSport columnist was asked by former team-mate and current boss Gareth Southgate to pass on his advice for staying at the top.
Shearer scored 30 goals in 63 appearances for England and Southgate said: “We’ve done this a couple of times now. John Barnes came to speak with them in June.
“I think it’s really valuable for the players to hear the experiences of former England internationals – their pride and sense of connection to the shirt, some of the lessons, things they would do differently, the reason they thought certain campaigns were successful and others weren’t.
“And for the guys to appreciate that being in the team now is a great honour but you’re just one of the many people that have worn the shirt.
“Don’t get too carried away with ourselves. Alan has 30 goals in 60-odd caps. We had Bobby Charlton with us earlier in the week.
“It was an incredible experience for all of us to see someone with such humility who was so touched to be recognised at St George’s Park.
“For me, it’s about creating that sense of belonging in the England squad that is really important.”
Shearer’s role as a Premier League star-turned pundit also cropped up.
Southgate said: “He got a bit of a grilling because of what he’s doing now.
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“I thought that was good. I knew that might happen. I think it’s good for the players to understand the world of the media and the requirements of the media, what you’re expected to do.
"It then helps them understand comments that are made, accept it’s not personal, most of the time, and that you guys are doing your job in the way we are.”
Harry Kane said: “It was great, great to hear him telling the stories about England and his whole career, what he'd come through, the ups and downs.
"We spoke about penalties and lots of stuff. It was great to have an England legend come in with his experience.
“He was on the playing side and then went to the media side. We wanted to understand what that takes, how the mindset changes.
"I'm sure as a player he was probably like most players when he was criticised, not too happy.
“And now he's the one criticising. All that matters, though, is what goes on in your head and being focused on your own job.
"If someone does criticise you, you want to prove them wrong. That's what I did at the start of my career.”
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