Ian Hart: Good World Cup starts don't always end well...

England manager Gareth Southgate. Picture by Michael Gillen
England manager Gareth Southgate. Picture by Michael Gillen

For those old enough to remember Bryan Robson’s 27-second opener against France in 1982, you will recall that World Cup campaigns can start well but then unfortunately peter out.

Way back 36 years ago, England won all three group games before going out in the second round-robin section with two goalless draws against West Germany and host nation Spain respectively. Despite staying unbeaten in the competition and only conceding one goal in the process (against France) in the aforementioned opening group game.

On paper an impressive set of stats?

In reality as a fresh faced 17-year-old – enjoying watching England play in their first World Cup finals in 12 years – ultimately disappointing.

To the present day, not taking anything away from our opening wins, history proves the dangers of getting carried away.

Sunday’s record 6-1 win against Panama will go down in England World Cup history but we do have to be careful. While our opponents were ranked 55th in the FIFA rankings, they played like they were 155th and a case in point was the 60-plus gathering at Chez Hart on Sunday afternoon, which collectively at half-time was predicting, albeit some through a beer-induced haze, another goal fest to mirror the first 45 minutes.

It didn’t happen, Gareth Southgate rightly changed things, and taking nothing away from an excellent display, the footballing history books in years to come will not only record an emphatic win but also reflect on the level of the opposition.

That said there is still room for optimism and positivity, tonight’s game against Belgium represents a more relevant barometer.

With knockout qualification already achieved, to a degree the pressure is off England. Belgium arguably have some of the best individual players in the tournament, however, as a team there have been question marks about their ability to gel. They are often labelled with the ‘underachievers’ tag and England could apply pressure to the men from the low countries as well.

Therefore I’m really looking forward to tonight’s game, win, lose or draw, England are through so an exciting 90 minutes without any real jeopardy is in prospect.

With what we’ve seen so far, whoever England face in the last 16 and beyond hasn’t really been that daunting.

The key is how the ‘bigger’ nations evolve and develop as they progress through the knockout rounds and in the latter stages of the competition.

World Cup history certainly proves this, back in 1982 England won all three group games, while Italy didn’t win a single match, recording three draws before Paolo Rossi and co gathered momentum and went on to lift the trophy. All the while unbeaten, England were all on holiday by the time King Juan Carlos presented Dino Zoff with the trophy.

I can’t sign off this week without a prediction, actually two. I think England and Belgium will provide an excellent game, which will ultimately end in a draw and whoever we face next Monday or Tuesday in the last 16, I think by the time next weekend arrives we will be amongst the last eight in the competition and in with a chance of progressing further.