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England vs Czech Republic: Three Lions on an upward curve as they begin road back to Wembley

Jack Pitt-Brooke
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England vs Czech Republic: Three Lions on an upward curve as they begin road back to Wembley

What England start again at Wembley on Friday they must finish there in 16 months’ time.

Their Euro 2020 cycle begins on Friday night against the Czech Republic, and the only way it will be a success is if Harry Kane lifts the trophy in the national stadium on July 12 next year. That might sound like a high bar and heavy expectations for a team that has only won one major trophy in its history, and that 53 years ago.

But it is a recognition of the progress that they have made, the strength of this team, and the power that comes with being the host of the semis and final next year.

England, as well all know, reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup and the same stage of the 2019 Nations League. They may even go on to win that, representing the next step in their forward journey under Gareth Southgate.

The fact that this team is still growing and improving is visible to anyone who watches them. The performances in Russia were good, but maybe not as good as the results. But the performances since Russia have been far better. The 3-2 win in Seville last October was the highest point this team has hit yet, probably the best England display for a generation. The comeback to beat Croatia at home and reach the final four was a stirring moment, the sign of a team who knew how to turn big games their way when they needed to.

Just look at the last few years under Southgate and you see a team that does not have much to fear from any other side in Europe. It would be a fascinating contest to see them in a big competitive game against world champions France or European champions Portugal, who they may well face in the final in Porto on 9 June.

But there is even more confidence to be drawn from the fact that this England team is still on an upwards curve. The oldest players from the World Cup squad - Ashley Young, Gary Cahill and Jamie Vardy - have all been sidelined. There is only one player in this squad who was born in the 1980s, backup goalkeeper Tom Heaton. No outfielder is in his 30s. And the form of the key players is only getting better and better.

Harry Kane will only be 26 by the time of Euro 2020, which he said on Tuesday would be “on the border” of his peak years. He has added a deep-lying intelligence and creativity to his role, the perfect combination with runners ahead of him, as he showed in that landmark 3-2 win in Spain. Raheem Sterling feels like he has been around forever but he is only 24 and is still improving every year with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. If he ended this season with the Premier League and Champions League medals and a stack of individual awards too it would be no surprise.

In John Stones and Joe Gomez England have two centre-backs still in their early 20s but who anchor the two best teams in the country. Gomez was unlucky to miss the World Cup with injury but that tournament was the making of Stones at the very highest level. Neither man will play at Wembley tomorrow - they are both injured - but they will surely be England’s combination at centre-back for years to come.

Southgate's side are continuing to evolve (AFP/Getty Images)

The only England first-teamer who may well be just beyond his peak by next summer is Kyle Walker, who will be 30, but even if Southgate wants to refresh the team he has the graceful, incisive Trent Alexander-Arnold to call upon in that place. And the two newest additions to the squad, Declan Rice (20) and Jadon Sancho (18), both play the game with a maturity, intelligence and natural confidence that marks them out as ready for this level.

So all of the pieces are there for continued improvement, and if England are not playing at the serious end of Euro 2020, back at Wembley, then something will have gone seriously wrong. But this is a change, a reverse of the no-expectations environment of last year. And this means that the players will have to carry that new burden.

When Kane spoke to the media on Tuesday afternoon at St George’s Park, he acknowledged that. “It is a great incentive to have the opportunity to play in a European Championship where we could have quite a few games at Wembley, it is exciting,” he said. “People expect us to qualify and they think it is going to be an easy group but it is never that easy. We have to go and be professional.”

This is the new challenge for England, a challenge they have not had since Sven Goran Eriksson took the Golden Generation to Germany in 2006. It will come down to how Kane and his cohort handle it.

“We feel that expectation where people now expect us to do well, and before the World Cup there was no expectation,” Kane said. “It is great that we have turned that around. It is down to us as players to use that experience we have had and to manage expectations. We know we want to win it and we want to make fans happy and be proud but we know there is a long way ahead. It won’t be easy."