The prospect of Harry Kane not scoring in any of England‘s group games at the World Cup might have left fans fearing the worst but instead there is a growing sense of optimism as Gareth Southgate’s side eye Sunday’s last-16 clash with Senegal.
Kane, whose 51 goals for his country puts him only two behind record holder Wayne Rooney, has yet to fully hit his straps in Qatar, barely having a shot on target.
A foot knock sustained in the opening win against Iran has not helped the England skipper, who top-scored in the 2018 World Cup with six, but his lack of goals has certainly not impeded England‘s smooth progress to the knockout rounds.
In fact, Kane’s failure to hit the net can be flipped to a positive.
England have still managed to score a tournament co-leading nine goals with their other forwards stepping up to the mark, none more so than Manchester United’s rejuvenated Marcus Rashford with three goals already.
Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka have also been among the goals, leaving Southgate a pleasant selection dilemma ahead of Senegal, although it is inconceivable he would not start with Kane in his forward three.
Compared to the white-knuckle rides experienced by some of the other favourites here, England sauntered through their group. But now, says Southgate, the serious business begins.
Senegal were crowned African champions earlier this year and although they arrived in Qatar without their injured talisman Sadio Mane, the ‘Lions of Teranga’ are a powerful side packed with experience and devoted to coach Aliou Cisse.
Southgate will need no reminding of what a wildly unpredictable tournament this has been so far and England‘s focus will have to be total at the Al Bayt Stadium on Sunday, even if history is on their side.
England have faced African opposition seven times at the World Cup without losing, although there have been some scares along the way, notably in 1990 when they trailed to Cameroon late on in the quarter-finals before winning 3-2.
Former England manager Glenn Hoddle says Southgate’s team will have too much quality for a Senegal side who opened the tournament with defeat by the Netherlands but bounced back to beat Qatar and Ecuador to reach the last 16.
“I don’t think Senegal have come under the real convincing pressure that England will put them under,” Hoddle said of England‘s first-ever clash with Senegal.
African nations have lost eight of their nine World Cup knockout round games against European sides, although the one success came in 2002 when a Senegal side captained by Cisse beat Sweden to reach the quarter-finals.
Senegal burst into that tournament by defeating reigning champions France and the dreadlocked Cisse will no doubt be using the heroics of 20 years ago to inspire his team for their date with England.
If they are to produce another shock in a tournament that has already seen its fair share, Senegal will not only have to do it without Mane but also Idrissa Gueye, who is suspended having picked up a second yellow card against Ecuador.
While England will be expected to reach the quarter-finals, and a possible clash with France, Southgate knows that any World Cup journey has bumps in the road and Senegal will be treated with the utmost respect.
“Senegal will be tough,” he said. “They’re very well organised, they’ve got a lot of good individual players playing in big European leagues and their expectations now will rise.”