England can now start finalising plans for Euro 2024 in Germany next summer after qualification was assured with a 3-1 victory against Italy at Wembley.
In reality, manager Gareth Southgate will have been crystallising his thoughts since another of those near-misses England have made their speciality in the World Cup quarter-final against France in Qatar last December.
Southgate’s England can point to a decent record in recent major tournaments, with a World Cup semi-final in Russia in 2018, a Euro 2020 final and the last eight in Qatar.
England, however, lost them all. Southgate and his players are still the nearly men who can get close but not close enough.
So will Euro 2024 be different? Can England’s men cross the line and win their first major trophy since the 1966 World Cup?
England’s attack will be feared
England’s attacking options will be Southgate’s greatest strength in Germany, led by his country’s record goalscorer, and his captain, Harry Kane.
The 30-year-old striker is as close to a guarantee of goals that England could wish for – as he continues to prove in the Bundesliga since his move to Bayern Munich from Tottenham. As usual, everything will be crossed in the hope no injury misfortune befalls him.
Southgate also has outstanding talent to not only supply Kane but also work in tandem with him, such as Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka and the Manchester City pair of Jack Grealish and Phil Foden. Raheem Sterling is currently marginalised by the manager but he has shown signs of returning to his best at Chelsea.
Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford will also battle for a starting place while Spurs’ James Maddison has taken his game to another level after his move from Leicester City.
There may be concerns over alternatives to Kane should he get injured, with Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins getting his chance against Australia. Brentford’s Ivan Toney will want to put himself back in contention when he returns to action in January – and perhaps at another club – after his suspension for breaking Football Association betting rules.
It is no slight on any understudies to suggest they are not in Kane’s class at this level but if Southgate has all of England’s forward options fit at the start of Euro 2024, then every opponent will be wary.
The Bellingham factor
Jude Bellingham will arrive at Euro 2024 with his reputation established as one of the best players in the world, having moved seamlessly from Borussia Dortmund to demonstrate he is the complete package at Real Madrid.
Bellingham produced another masterclass in the victory over Italy, inspiring England’s comeback after they went behind, excelling in every aspect of the game and even orchestrating the Wembley crowd, demanding greater volume when the atmosphere threatened to dip.
He also revels in the adulation of England’s supporters and the addition pressure and expectation this brings. It is a weight he carries with ease. He is, beyond question, the real deal.
England and Southgate are fortunate to have in Bellingham, who will be 21 during Euro 2024, someone who will be the envy of every other country at the tournament.
Even for relatively tender years, Bellingham proved his fearlessness at the World Cup in Qatar and has since improved at a rapid rate.
If it were ever doubted, Bellingham has confirmed his maturity and quality by settling so quickly in The Bernabeu hothouse. He is already a hero to the Madridistas in the number five jersey previously worn by the legendary Zinedine Zidane.
Bellingham offers Southgate a fierce competitive edge, creativity, goals and leadership. He will not shy away from any challenges at Euro 2024.
Bellingham continued his impressive form for Real Madrid with another eye-catching display against Italy
England can boast a range of threats in attack and a reliable goalkeeper in Jordan Pickford but old concerns still exist.
And once again we return to central defence, where England have long been vulnerable against high-quality opposition.
The big question mark, whether Southgate likes it or not, remains over Manchester United’s Harry Maguire and, as a consequence, who will partner John Stones in Germany.
Southgate will continue, with justification, to argue that Maguire has not let England down. But how far can his loyalty stretch if the 30-year-old does not get regular game time between now and Euro 2024?
It is clear Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag will not give him that game time, so does Southgate risk sending Maguire into Euro 2024 undercooked? This is a very high-risk strategy.
There are alternatives, with Brighton’s Lewis Dunk impressing, Levi Colwill coming through at Chelsea and Crystal Palace’s Marc Guehi stating his case. AC Milan’s Fikayo Tomori has also had his opportunity.
Stones is a guarantee but who will be alongside him is a concern in an area where top-class strikers will always fancy their chances. There were even signs of it on the rare occasions Italy threatened at Wembley on Tuesday – and Euro 2024 will be no different.
England’s main rivals
The usual suspects will be on parade in Germany, including their Qatar conquerors France, complete with Kylian Mbappe. France, still under the shrewd and experienced Didier Deschamps, are second in the Fifa standings behind World Cup holders Argentina.
The hosts are in transition but will still be formidable on home turf with a new coach, the highly-regarded Julian Nagelsmann. They will have the support of a fervent football nation behind them.
Portugal, now with Roberto Martinez in charge and still with Cristiano Ronaldo as their superstar, have romped through qualifying and have quality throughout. Martinez’s previous job was in charge of Belgium, who are also through but with suggestions their so-called “Golden Generation” may have passed their best.
France, at first glance, represent the biggest potential threat to England.
The need to learn from past near-misses
England’s drive deeper into tournaments in recent years has raised expectations that they can finally end the so-called years of hurt. It has also sharpened focus on their inability to get themselves over the line.
The 2018 World Cup semi-final loss to Croatia and the Euro 2020 final loss to Italy on penalties at Wembley must be viewed as huge missed opportunities – and while England played well before losing to France in the last eight in Qatar, the defining win at a crucial stage of a major tournament remains beyond them.
England will arrive in Germany no doubt telling us they have learned much from these cruel experiences. But the doubts will only go away once they prove it with that landmark victory.
They have quality and experience. Will the experience of losing so painfully on three occasions provide the catalyst to win in Germany?
Southgate has already guided England to a World Cup semi-final and European Championship final – can he now go one better?
Can England win Euro 2024?
Will they win Euro 2024? See above for the question marks.
England will rightly be regarded as potential tournament winners given the range of talent on offer to Southgate, who must now make key selection decisions in the months ahead and hope none of his plans are scuppered by injury.
Trent Alexander-Arnold’s creation in midfield offers something extra, so will Southgate ditch his natural inclination to play two holding midfielders, Arsenal’s Declan Rice and one other, or will he adopt the move positive approach and pick the gifted Liverpool player?
Saka is a certain starter on the right so what will Southgate do on the left? Grealish? Foden? Sterling? Will Mason Mount get things going at Manchester United? Southgate is huge admirer.
So yes, England can triumph at Euro 2024. But Southgate and his players still have to actually prove they can be winners at this level. That might yet be the biggest barrier to cross.