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World Cup: Why England must now win their group

We can now say it with total certainty: England are going to win the World Cup!

Okay, perhaps we’re getting a touch carried away. Let’s downgrade slightly and say instead that if England can win their group they stand a far better chance of going further in the tournament. Not quite as catchy, but a lot more accurate.

England sit top of Group G after yesterday’s blistering performance against Panama, ahead of Belgium on fair play points alone. If Gareth Southgate’s team can draw with Roberto Martinez’s on Thursday and avoid discipline issues, they will win the group.

So what does history tell us about finishing first?

England’s best two World Cup results came after they topped their group – in 1966 and 1990. When England beat Cameroon in the 1990 quarter-finals, Ireland, second in their group, were knocked out by Italy.

Since 1966, whenever England have finished second in their group they have failed to make it past the quarter-finals. Recently, it has been even worse. In 2010, England finished second to the United States and lost to Germany in the last 16. It was the same story in 1998 when Argentina broke hearts in Saint Etienne.

The conclusion is clear: England tend to do better in tournaments when they finish top of their group. There are many factors at play here – momentum, belief and a more favourable last 16 draw.

This year the potential path forward is harder to assess than usual, with many of the pre-tournament favourites failing to impress. What we can say for sure is that finishing first in their group will pit England against the second-placed team in Group H – Senegal, Colombia or Japan.

From there much depends on the final round of group games, which begin today. England could face Brazil, Germany or a highly impressive Mexico in the quarter-finals.

If they are to make this a tournament to remember they will need to see off one of the big guns at some point. One thing is certain – history suggests pipping Belgium to top spot will help them along the way.

Today’s trivia

3: The number of red cards received by Egypt the last time they played Saudi Arabia in a tournament. They lost 5-1 at the 1999 Confederations Cup.

6: Russia have won six of their eight meetings against Uruguay (including games as the Soviet Union). Uruguay’s only win against Russia came in World Cup 1970.

8: Spain have won their final group game in each of the last eight World Cup tournaments, a run stretching back to 1986.

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