England, winners on football’s biggest stage more than half a century ago, crashed out without winning a match four years ago in Brazil, and have not won a knockout match in any tournament since 2006.
Gareth Southgate’s team will be eager to start with a bang after world champions Germany slipped up in their opening match against Mexico and favourites Brazil were held by Switzerland.
Southgate’s young charges arrived in Russia quietly confident after a solid qualifying campaign and encouraging friendly results against Brazil, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.
They play Tunisia in the historic city of Volgograd knowing anything other than a win would disrupt pre-tournament plans, with Belgium looming later in Group G.
Southgate’s lack of experience was widely discussed when he was appointed but the former Under 21s coach has cultivated an atmosphere of unity and a determination to bury past failures.
“This team shouldn’t be burdened with that because they’re a fresh group, most of them have very few international caps, so the future is all ahead of them,” Southgate told reporters.
England captain Harry Kane, who is yet to score a goal in a tournament, has vowed an aggressive approach against opponents expected to defend in numbers.
“First and foremost we are going to want to attack the game, we feel like we are going to have a lot of possession of the ball,” the Tottenham forward said.
Less than 2,000 tickets for the match have been sold to England fans, an official supporters’ group said.
Fans arriving in Volgograd received a warm welcome, but they were outnumbered by Tunisia fans.
Belgium start their World Cup campaign on more familiar ground: a squad stuffed with stars but with questions over their manager.
Spaniard Roberto Martinez was a left-field choice to replace Marc Wilmots after Euro 2016 and the former Everton boss seems no nearer to solving the puzzle of getting Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne playing to their sky-high potential in the same side.
The boys from Brussels face Panama, Central America’s World Cup debutants, in Sochi.
Martinez on Sunday said Hazard was ready to light up a tournament in the same way as Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo did with his stunning hat-trick against Spain.
“I think Eden is in a great moment of his career. Look at his age, and he is the captain, in terms of leadership — he never finds it difficult to show for the ball,” he said.
Results under Martinez have been excellent — Belgium have not lost since he took over — but there is a sense that this tournament represents their best chance at World Cup glory.
– Sweden win –
In Monday’s early game, Sweden — now without retired superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic — beat South Korea 1-0 in Nizhny Novgorod to go joint top of Germany’s group alongside Mexico thanks to a VAR (Video Assistant Referee) penalty.
Veteran Swedish skipper Andreas Granqvist scored the only goal of the game from the spot after Viktor Claesson was upended by South Korean substitute Kim Min-woo midway through the second half.
Despite furious appeals, El Salvadorean referee Joel Aguilar intially waved away Swedish penalty claims but after consulting the video, he pointed to the spot.
It was the third VAR penalty awarded in Russia after France and Peru also benefited from video referrals.
Germany are licking their wounds after slumping 1-0 to a Hirving Lozano strike in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium — the first time they have lost their opening game of a World Cup since 1982.
“I have not seen the German team so weak at a big tournament for a long time,” said West Germany’s 1990 World Cup-winning captain Lothar Matthaeus.
“Almost everything was missing. There were concentration errors, unnecessary bad passes and also the attitude was not there.”
If Germany finish as Group F runners-up, they could face Brazil in a clash of World Cup titans in the next round.
Brazil themselves started their Russian campaign with a whimper on Sunday when gutsy Switzerland battled back to cancel out a superb Philippe Coutinho strike, scoring through Steven Zuber’s powerful header.
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