MANCHESTER, England (AP) — England is attempting to break a cycle of heartache and humiliation at major tournaments that plunged the birthplace of football to its lowest ebb.
A loss to Iceland in the last 16 of the 2016 European Championship was perhaps the ultimate embarrassment. Or maybe that came when the English endured their shortest World Cup campaign two years earlier whey they were only in contention for eight days.
Before that, there were penalty shootout losses in 1990, 1996, 1998, 2004, 2006 and 2012. And before that, who could forget Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal that denied England in the World Cup semifinals in 1986?
It’s no surprise that the nation’s expectations are low heading to Russia.
England coach Gareth Southgate has long been tempering his team’s prospects. Defender Kyle Walker even acknowledged it would be a “miracle” if England won football’s biggest prize this year.
England won the 1966 World Cup, but has only reached the semifinals of a tournament twice since then. What next for one of the underachievers of international football? Encouraging draws in recent friendlies against Brazil, Germany and Italy show the English are heading in the right direction but they have been here before in the run-up to tournaments.
Here’s a closer look at the England team:
Southgate was promoted from England’s under-21 team to become coach of the senior side in September 2016, with the appointment widely viewed with skepticism because of his lack of managerial experience in top-level soccer.
However, opinions are changing on the former England defender who missed the decisive penalty in a shootout against Germany in the European Championship semifinals in 1996. He has made brave selection decisions — dropping Wayne Rooney, for starters — and has implemented a bold approach that has seen the team adopt a three-man defense and play the ball out from the back as much as possible.
Long-time starter Joe Hart has lost his place in the squad after a tough two years on loan at Torino and West Ham from Manchester City. Jordan Pickford, Jack Butland and Nick Pope now occupy the three goalkeeping spots.
Pickford, whose distribution is superior to Butland’s, is expected to begin the World Cup as first choice after being handed the No. 1 jersey. Pope edged out Hart for the final spot, having impressed as Burnley finished seventh in the English Premier League.
Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young — attacking fullbacks with good delivery and energy — look to be England’s starting wingbacks, so it is the center-back combination that will be occupying Southgate’s thoughts.
Youthful duo John Stones and Harry Maguire are contenders to start even though the former is fourth choice at Manchester City and has barely played in 2018, while the latter has just three appearances.
Kyle Walker, a fast right back, has impressed in recent friendlies as a right-sided center back and looks set to start the tournament in that position. Experience comes from Gary Cahill and Phil Jones, who both finished the season strongly to secure their places.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, a 19-year-old defender, was a shock inclusion to the squad after impressing as Liverpool reached the Champions League final. He’ll look to put Trippier under pressure for his starting place.
England will play with either two or three central midfielders, depending if the team is deployed in a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 formation, and they are likely to be functional, hard-working players.
It’s a far cry from the days when the country could call upon stars of the Premier League like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes. Instead, Southgate will rely on selfless players such as Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier, and Fabian Delph, who will keep their shape and allow the wingbacks and forward players to offer a goal threat.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is injured and Adam Lallana failed to prove his fitness, so creative responsibilities fall upon Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and wildcard inclusion Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
The trio will perhaps be deployed in deeper positions than they may have been if Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lallana were present.
The most straightforward department for Southgate: Harry Kane will start as the central striker, with Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford as backups.
Despite a blip in April after returning from an ankle injury, Kane finished the Premier League season with 30 goals for Tottenham.
Having found his form with five goals in his last five appearances for club and country, the 24-year-old is England’s most lethal striker and arguably most important player.
Raheem Sterling is expected to line up just behind Kane after his breakthrough season with Manchester City, while Danny Welbeck provides versatility and experience on the bench.
England, which is based just outside St. Petersburg, opens Group G against Tunisia in Volgograd on June 18. The team then plays Panama in Nizhny Novgorod on June 24 and finishes against Belgium in Kaliningrad on June 28.
Goalkeepers: Jack Butland (Stoke), Jordan Pickford (Everton), Nick Pope (Burnley)
Defenders: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Fabian Delph (Manchester City), Phil Jones (Manchester United), Harry Maguire (Leicester), Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur), John Stones (Manchester City), Kieran Trippier (Tottenham Hotspur), Kyle Walker (Manchester City), Ashley Young (Manchester United)
Midfielders: Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur), Eric Dier (Tottenham Hotspur), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Jesse Lingard (Manchester United), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea)
Forwards: Harry Kane (Tottenham), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Jamie Vardy (Leicester), Danny Welbeck (Arsenal)
More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup