Gary Neville believes the scenario of facing either Scotland or Wales in the Qatar World Cup group stage is one that England and Gareth Southgate would have wanted to avoid.
The Three Lions were drawn with the United States, Iran and one of Scotland, Wales or Ukraine in Friday’s draw, with Southgate’s men benefiting from being top seeds, earned by being ranked as one of the top seven international sides in the world.
Speaking from Qatar, Neville believes the November 25 clash with the USA – England’s second of the group – is the most difficult game in the opening round of matches for the Three Lions, but says the presence of Scottish or Welsh fans could make life difficult for the Euro 2020 finalists in the Gulf state.
“England would have wanted to avoid a home nation,” Neville told Sky Sports News after the draw. “I’m not sure Scotland and Wales would have wanted to avoid it but certainly England. It just brings that complication you don’t need. They’ve always been difficult opponents.
“We know what it means to the Welsh and the Scottish to play against England. That’s not being arrogant, it’s just that we know it’s a huge fixture. It is for England as well but it doesn’t seem to carry that sort of dislike that comes with the Welsh or the Scottish fever towards England.
“And then relations at Government level between Iran, England and USA over the last 20 to 30 years have not always been great. So there will be a lot of interest around that game.
“Of course, the way in which USA will look at England will provide great difficulty. If you’re playing the USA, that’s going to be a really tough game. Each game will be tough, but that will be the toughest in the group.
“I’m looking forward to the group, they’ve all got a meaning to them but they are difficult games from an emotional perspective more than a football perspective. That does carry something of a problem for England.”
‘Perfect conditions for England to win World Cup’
Despite the difficult challenges in the group, Neville has backed the Three Lions to go all the way this winter, claiming the November to December structure of this year’s competition will suit Southgate’s squad.
“This is the best England team since 1966,” the Sky Sports pundit added. “They’ve achieved far more than any other team since.
“They’re the best group of players, they’re playing consistently well in tournaments, the level of football is good and they’re still maturing. They’re getting better, they’ve got great technical players, you can’t not like them and the manager is fantastic.
“This is now a perfect tournament for England, whose teams over the last 30 or 40 years have always talked about being tired at the end of the season. We’re coming over to Qatar in the November, December period – perfect conditions.
“England and Premier League players should be fresher than they have been in the past. And with this team, if they’re growing like that, you hope they can go that step further [than Euro 2020].”
Southgate: USA match a particularly intriguing contest
England will face Iran for the first time in international competition, but they will know their other two opponents much better when they face off in Qatar.
The Three Lions faced the USA in their 2010 World Cup opener, drawing 1-1 at the South Africa tournament in a game forever remembered for Rob Green’s error for the Americans’ equaliser. England have faced one of Scotland and Wales in their last two European Championship campaigns, while Southgate’s men dispatched Ukraine 4-0 at Euro 2020.
Wales made it through to the World Cup play-off final earlier this month by beating Austria in Cardiff thanks to Gareth Bale’s brace. The other two teams are due to play their play-off match to meet Rob Page’s side in the final in June after their original fixture was postponed due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Reacting to England’s opponents this winter, Southgate responded: “The first two [Iran and USA] are obviously teams we’ve not played for quite a while and the third is a total unknown but obviously throws up a possible British derby, we know what they’re all about, we’ve had plenty of them.
“When you’re seeded you get the advantage of missing out on those big six or seven teams. I think for most of the first seeds they would be pleased with the first group they get.
“The USA is an interesting one. I know (head coach) Gregg Berhalter quite well, we’ve met a few times and had long chats about things, in fact only a couple of weeks ago. We were smiling at the end [of the draw] there. They’ve got some very good players and we know what they could be capable of as a nation. That one, in particular, is an intriguing game.
“In this situation all our thoughts are with the people of Ukraine, so when that tie is played and how that is played out is irrelevant really. It’s for the rest of us to adapt and adjust and provide them with the opportunity to play as and when they are able to.”
Meanwhile, Southgate says his England squad will need to quit their Premier League responsibilities “as quickly as possible” in November to head off to Qatar after being handed an opening-day World Cup tie.
The Three Lions’ game against Iran on November 21 comes just eight days after the Premier League stops for a winter break. Southgate claimed he is now happy with the clarity of the situation, but will call on his players to be swift in getting out of their club duties.
England’s Key World Cup dates
- November 13: Premier League shuts down for World Cup break
- November 21: England kick-off World Cup campaign against Iran
- November 25: England play the USA in second group game
- November 29: England face Scotland, Wales or Ukraine in final group game
- December 18: World Cup final
- December 26: Premier League resumes after the World Cup
“We’re in on day one so it’s quite clear now what our programme looks like with the end of the Premier League season and getting out here as quickly as possible,” Southgate told the BBC on Friday night.
While England will start their World Cup campaign earlier than most of their rival teams, it does present the Three Lions with three days’ rest before the round of 16 gets under way, should they top their group.
“It does but we’ve got to get out of the group,” added Southgate in response to that point being made. “What we’ve done well is we’ve approached these tournaments by looking at the group – the first objective is to get out of the group regardless of the opposition and then you build from there.”