England 'want to make history' at Euro 2024 in potential Gareth Southgate swansong

Manager's future set to be dictated by how the team fares in Germany as they look to become European champions for first time

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The jeers were loud and unforgiving after the final whistle was blown at Wembley Stadium as England's final match before Euro 2024 ended in a dismal defeat against Iceland.

There had been a similar reaction from the stands when the players came off at half-time after a first half that saw the visitors take a 12th-minute lead thanks to Jon Dagur Thorsteinsson’s low strike.

Losing at home to Iceland, ranked 72nd in the world, having registered one measly shot on target over a laboured 90 minutes, was a far from ideal send-off and it was a sheepish group of players that set off on a lap of appreciation after the match, with only a smattering of fans left inside the famous stadium.

Despite that disappointment, midfielder Declan Rice insists there is a strong belief in the squad that this is the year England can win their second major tournament after the 1966 World Cup and become champions of Europe for the first time.

“We want to make history,” the Arsenal midfielder said before the team flew off to Germany on Monday afternoon. “We say it all the time, but genuinely we have a group, a manager, that really believes.

“We have a confidence that we can go there and do something really special and, of course, with that comes hard work. That is going to be the main thing – the hard work as a team, unity, togetherness and with everyone behind us at home.”

England's campaign begins on Sunday with their Group C opener against Serbia in Gelsenkirchen – ahead of games against Denmark and Slovenia – and Gareth Southgate's side remain one of the tournament favourites.

Their qualifying campaign struck a familiar chord, finishing unbeaten at the top of Group C, six points clear of Italy having completed an impressive home and away double over the Azzurri, their conquerors in the Euro 2020 final.

They notched 22 goals and conceded just four with Kane's eight strikes only bettered by Kylian Mbappe (nine), Cristiano Ronaldo (10) and Romelu Lukaku (14) in the Euro qualifiers as a whole.

But this part of the journey has not been an issue since England last failed to qualify for a major tournament – Euro 2008 – when hapless manager Steve McLaren watched on from under an umbrella on the sidelines as Croatia ended their finals hopes with a 3-2 win at a rain-drenched Wembley.

The problems generally arise when they arrive at the finals themselves. “I feel like we are on the right path,” insisted record scorer Kane, who has 63 goals in 91 England appearances. “But as we all know as well, it is really difficult to win these tournaments.”

England's forward options in Germany will be among the most feared out of any of the countries lining up at Euro 2024 and have enjoyed superlative seasons at their respective clubs.

Two of their star players were plying their trade abroad, finding the back of the net with unerring accuracy and regularity; Kane notched 44 goals in 45 games at Bayern Munich, while Jude Bellingham's 23 in 42 earned him the Spanish player of the year award and helped Real Madrid seal a La Liga and Champions League double.

It was a similar story for the home-based attacking players: Phil Foden's 19 goals helped Manchester City secure a historic fourth Premier League crown in a row; Bukayo Saka hit 16 as Arsenal took the title race down to the final day; Cole Palmer's 22 for Chelsea was beaten only by Golden Boot winner Erling Haaland.

Even England's backup forwards could show off impressive stats, with Aston Villa's Ollie Watkins (32), Jarrod Bowen (22) at West Ham and Newcastle's Anthony Gordon (21) all registering more than 20 goal contributions.

Finding the right combination out of that list of players is a nice problem for Southgate, although he will have a big call to make about who plays alongside Rice in midfield.

Manchester United teenager Kobbie Mainoo has enjoyed a superb season but had a match to forget against Iceland. Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold's range of passing would be welcomed by the forward line but Southgate tends to prefer a more defensive-minded option next to Rice.

With previous choice Kalvin Phillips out of favour, he may prefer the hard running of Chelsea's Conor Gallagher while the eye-catching cameo of Adam Wharton in the friendly win over Bosnia-Herzegovina makes the Crystal Palace 20-year-old an outside, if exciting, choice.

But it is in defence where the major concerns lie. Kyle Walker provides experience and reliability at right-back but his Manchester City teammate John Stones has struggled with injuries and the centre-half was taken off at the break against Iceland after taking a knock to the ankle – a “mainly precautionary” move according to Southgate but a concern with the tournament fast approaching.

Palace defender Marc Guehi, with 11 caps to his name, looks set to partner Stones ahead of Brighton's solid if limited Lewis Dunk, while the right-footed Kieran Trippier of Newcastle will deputise on the left with Manchester United's Luke Shaw still not match fit. Jordan Pickford of Everton remains firmly No 1 choice as goalkeeper.

Since taking over as manager, Southgate has revitalised England, guiding them to a World Cup semi- and quarter-final – as well as the Euro 2020 showpiece – and yet there remains a sizeable section of Three Lions fans that believe he should have achieved more with the talent available.

Whether Southgate will be in the dugout for the Uefa Nations League game away to the Republic of Ireland in September will be dictated by how the next few weeks pan out in front of an expectant nation.

“We know how much it means to the country and the fans. The nation comes together at this moment,” said captain Kane on Monday. “We are probably going into this as one of the favourites ... We need to prove we are one of the best.”

Updated: June 11, 2024, 1:39 PM