Gareth Southgate has won his fair share of admirers and detractors in his six-year spell in charge of the England national team.
The ‘Southgate you’re the one’ crowd point to his enviable tournament record with the Three Lions, which now reads one semi-final, one final and one quarter-final. But the nay-sayers argue that England had favourable draws en route to the last four in Russia four years ago, while Germany were the only ‘big team’ they beat at Euro 2020. For every fan who champions Southgate as the man who brought England back to the big time, another questions whether his teams ‘bottled it’ in the last two tournaments.
Wherever you stand on the past, though, it’s difficult to remember a tougher test for Southgate’s England than the one that awaits them in the very near future. Nor the fact that this Saturday could be a defining moment for the current English generation as they take on the reigning World Cup champions – the best team they’ve faced in a tournament under Southgate.
For most, France’s threat boils largely down to one man – Kylian Mbappe. The Paris Saint-Germain forward has unquestionably been the player of the tournament so far, and his display in dispatching Poland with two superbly-taken goals on Sunday sent shivers down English spines – even before they’d cruised past Senegal to book a quarter-final slot. He has five goals in four games and is the odds-on favourite (4/7) to take home the Golden Boot at this World Cup.
So it’s of little surprise that Mbappe is the bookies’ favourite to bag the first goal on Saturday night (5/1 with most bookmakers), although 2018 Golden Boot winner Harry Kane runs him close (21/4). And while Raheem Sterling is a doubt for the game after flying home to deal with a burglary at his family home, Southgate is blessed with just as much attacking depth as his opposite number, Didier Deschamps.
Backing up Mbappe and Kane is an all-star cast of attacking stars who could leave their imprint on this tie: from Olivier Giroud (7/1 to score first) and Antoine Griezmann (23/2) for Les Bleus; to Marcus Rashford (17/2) and Bukayo Saka (12/1) who have three apiece for England in Qatar so far.
England fans might find the whole experience too nerve-wracking to actually enjoy this game, but the neutrals will surely be looking forward to watching such an array of talent, providing the managers take the handbrakes off.
Prime time Saturday night entertainment? Something like that. Either way, an England win isn’t out of the question (2/1) but maybe don’t bet your lottery winnings on it. Les Bleus have Mbappe and therefore they have the favourites tag at Al Bait Stadium, coming in at 7/5 with most bookies.
Our prediction: France to win by one goal (16/5)