The countdown to the Qatar World Cup starts tonight against Switzerland as England focus on ruling the world

THE countdown to the World Cup starts at Wembley tonight.

England manager Gareth Southgate is just over halfway through this weird 16-month gap between major tournaments.

Gareth Southgate has been impressed with how side players have reacted to their Euro 2020 heatbreakCredit: Reuters

Arsenal star Bukayo Saka could be huge to England's hopes of World Cup glory

Arsenal star Bukayo Saka could be huge to England’s hopes of World Cup gloryCredit: PA

His backroom team started preparing for the World Cup in Qatar from the moment the team confirmed top spot in qualifying with a 10-0 mauling of San Marino.

On the pitch, though, it feels as though these two friendlies against a decent Switzerland team this evening and Ivory Coast on Tuesday are the real start of what, just maybe, could be a monumental year for the Three Lions.

Southgate has been impressed by the way a young squad overcame the trauma of last year’s Euros final loss on penalties to Italy.

The results have been decent, even though the majority of England players — with a few exceptions like Declan Rice — are not enjoying particularly good seasons.

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Following that painful evening last July, England won five and drew two of their World Cup qualifiers.

Italy have just been knocked out of the competition in a play-off by North Macedonia having managed just two wins in eight since winning Euro 2020.

Southgate revealed: “I said to the players the other day that they’ll never experience pressure like they felt last summer.

“They were in a European Championship where the majority of the games were at Wembley and the country had not been to a final for 50 years.

“They’ve lived through enormous pressure, so that should give them tremendous confidence in what they’re capable of.

“For some players, there’s less likelihood of a lot more tournaments, although all of them could go to the next European Championship.

“But for some of the younger ones, they could have another four or five, so that immediacy won’t feel the same to them.”

Southgate and his assistant, Steve Holland, ensured that the team remained focused in the qualifiers, even though it was hardly a tough group.

As England know through experience, the so-called easy-looking games can be the ones that bite you on the backside. This happened in Sicily on Thursday, while Southgate gave a discreet reminder — while not naming Iceland — of the embarrassing, shambolic events of Euro 2016.

Also referring to September’s 4-0 win in Hungary — England’s first game since the Euros final — Southgate added: “I think that what our team have done really well is recover from the disappointment of the summer and managed to sustain performances.

“We wanted to sustain our performances after the World Cup in Russia. We knew that if we didn’t, we would be accused of having had an easy draw or whatever it might have been — a flash in the pan — and the players responded to that in the Nations League that followed.

“They then responded to that in the European Championship and they responded to that again — in Budapest, in particular — making sure we got the qualification nailed.

“Of course, you can never take anything for granted but I think part of the game on Thursday (Italy- North Macedonia) ended up being anxiety.

“That’s something we’ve spoken about a lot from when we took over, because we had a game like that in France a few years ago. Thursday’s game reminded me a little bit of that.”

Southgate, who has been hit with a string of injuries, will still look to go strong against Switzerland before fielding a more experimental team against Ivory Coast.

DON’T EXPECT SURPRISES

While there are some uncapped players in the current squad, there are unlikely to be many surprises when Southgate names his World Cup party, which is likely to consist of 26 players.

He added: “At any point over the six years we’ve been in charge, if we had a game we had to win tomorrow we would know our best 11.

“But in terms of the World Cup, we don’t play tomorrow so we have to be open-minded to changes in circumstances. We lost three players to injury before this camp and seven after we named the squad.

“I don’t imagine that being as dramatic in November but you know you could lose several.

“I think all the players were aware that this was an important camp.

“When I’ve spoken with the lads that have had to pull out, they recognised their disappointment because it’s so close to the tournament and knowing we’ve only got six matches left after this week.

“The bigger concern is the volume of games close to the tournament.

“It’s a really condensed programme of regular midweeks, as well as the Saturdays, so we’re not sure what kind of impact that will have injury-wise. The circumstances of this particular tournament are different and the fact that there are between seven and ten days between the last league game and the first game of the tournament — so that is quite an extreme situation.

“We’ve got to factor in flying, getting over the time difference, some climate change and trying not to disrupt training patterns too much. Medically, there will be some big calls.”

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Of course, all the other countries will be in the same boat and England will hope for some luck in the World Cup draw, which takes place in six days.

So next Friday night, Qatar 2022 will feel that little bit closer.

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