June 21, 2024

England are the team to beat at next summer’s European Championship. There are no more excuses or mitigating factors for coach Gareth Southgate and his squad to fall short again.

Jude Bellingham, Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka, John Stones, Kyle Walker, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Declan Rice and Marcus Rashford are players who would walk into any national team in Europe. England have them all either in their prime, or approaching it, as they prepare for their Euro 2024 campaign in Germany.

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England have never been stronger going into a major tournament. They have been overhyped before underdelivering in the past, but the squad has now reached the point where only lifting the trophy would show they have realised their potential.

France, with Kylian Mbappé leading their cruise to qualification from Group B with a 100% record, and an emerging Spain team under coach Luis de la Fuente will be strong contenders, but no European nation possesses the same depth and quality as England.

A win against Italy at Wembley on Tuesday will confirm England’s qualification for Euro 2024 — a draw could even seal a place in the tournament — but the challenge for Southgate isn’t merely to complete the formality of emerging from Group C. The real task for the England manager is to ensure he makes the most of the riches at his disposal.

It has been a long process for England to reach this position, having recovered from the humiliation of a Euro 2016 elimination at the hands of Iceland to reach the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup and then the final of Euro 2020 — the senior men’s national team’s first major final since 1966. On that occasion, a defeat in a penalty shootout against Italy at Wembley denied England their first European title, but the disappointment of 2018, Euro 2020 and last year’s World Cup quarterfinal defeat against France in Qatar can also be viewed as stepping-stones toward success — if Southgate is able to overcome his own shortcomings to take England all the way.

For every team to succeed, certain building blocks must be in place. You must have the talent and experience to win — England possess both — and you must also enjoy the good fortune of being on the rise when your rivals are in a difficult period.

With hosts Germany in the depths of a crisis extending back way beyond their group-stage exit in Qatar — a slump that caused coach Hansi Flick to be replaced by Julian Nagelsmann — and reigning champions Italy struggling to qualify, having missed the past two World Cups, two of the traditional powerhouses of European football look nowhere close to being challengers next summer. Meanwhile, Netherlands are locked in a battle with Greece to qualify as runners-up to France in Group B, while Croatia dropped out of the automatic qualification spots in Group D with a defeat against Wales on Sunday.

France, Spain and Portugal look to be England’s most likely rivals next summer, but each of them have their own problems to address. Can France find a way to win without Mbappé if the Paris Saint-Germain forward is hit by injury or suspension? Is Spain striker Álvaro Morata capable of delivering goals against a top team? Can Portugal coach Roberto Martinez find a way to make his team competitive against heavyweight opponents while also accommodating Cristiano Ronaldo, who will be 39 when Euro 2024 begins?

England’s big question mark hangs over the tactical acumen of Southgate and his readiness to be bold when the occasion calls for it, but the old issues over England’s depth and whether they could control a game from midfield have disappeared. In Bellingham and Rice, Southgate has the most formidable midfield axis in Europe, and he also has the incredible goal threat of captain Kane up front.

Like France with Mbappe, England might find it difficult to beat the top teams without Bayern Munich forward Kane, but Saka, Grealish, Foden and Rashford are all capable of hurting opponents in a different way, so Southgate has alternative options in virtually every position. He also possesses two of the world’s best right-backs in Walker and Kieran Trippier, while a fully fit Stones brings calmness and authority at centre-back.

Southgate is now finding a way to accommodate Tottenham Hotspur‘s James Maddison as an attacking outlet in midfield and Manchester City‘s Rico Lewis, Newcastle United‘s Anthony Gordon and Brentford‘s Ivan Toney (once he returns in January from his eight-month ban for gambling) could yet force their way into the squad to add further exciting options before the tournament kicks off.

Defeating Italy at Wembley on Tuesday, after already securing a 2-1 win in Naples earlier in the qualification campaign, would be a symbolic victory for England having lost to the Italians in the final of Euro 2020. But they have gone beyond needing to secure individual victories to measure their progress. It’s all about winning a tournament now, and they have everything in place to finally go and do that.

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