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Southgate relishing it as England begin their adventure

 

By Miguel Delaney

Gareth Southgate cannot wait to touch down in Russia today and kick on with England's final World Cup preparations.

Following a home-based camp that could hardly have gone better, the so far injury-free Three Lions will head east for the final phase of training and fine-tuning.

England's Group G opener against Tunisia in Volgograd is now under a week away, with anticipation and excitement sure to go up another notch when the team land in Russia just two days before the World Cup starts.

The Three Lions will make their way from St George's Park to Birmingham Airport this afternoon, when they will fly to St Petersburg and go to their ForRestMix Club base in nearby Repino.

"We're pleased with how preparation has gone up until now," England manager Southgate said.

"We'll finally fly out, so it'll be good to get on with it now.

"Everybody is looking forward to getting to the first game."

Southgate was speaking yesterday morning at St George's Park, where he waved off referee Martin Atkinson and others on a charity bike ride to Russia.

The Premier League official aims to raise £60,000 for a variety of charities and be at England's final group game against Belgium in Kaliningrad on June 28.

"Our journey might get just as hard as theirs as we go along," said Southgate, whose side face Panama in their other Group G match.

"He's a nutter, but we knew that anyway. It's fantastic that they are raising money for really good causes.

"It's going to be a gruelling adventure but we're very proud of what they are all doing."

England continued preparations for their own adventure by holding an internal match at St George's Park at around lunchtime yesterday.

The 23 squad members were joined by standby midfielder Jake Livermore in a game held on the Sir Bobby Charlton pitch, where referee Anthony Taylor oversaw proceedings.

Players switched between the teams that wore England's white and black training tops, allowing Southgate to look at different combinations as all the squad members received some involvement.

Coming on the back of the 2-1 win against Nigeria and 2-0 victory over Costa Rica, Southgate had always planned to then have an internal game away from the public gaze - and overzealous challenges.

"We didn't want a third game," the former defender said last month.

"When there's been a third competitive game, there comes a point when the players are just trying to avoid injury really. You've got your minutes.

"We played a behind-closed-doors game in France (at the 1998 World Cup) with Glenn (Hoddle) against local opposition, which I thought worked quite well.

"But a couple of them went flying into tackles and you're thinking 'bloody hell', and you're just jumping out of the way of things.

"So there's a balance of how much you think you need physically, and how much mentally the players, do they want another game? Actually, at that point I'm not convinced they do.

"And if it's public you've got to hit a level of performance, you've got to entertain the supporters, and maybe all the players aren't ready to go again.

"We hope we can send people to work the following day having enjoyed our matches, I know what those tournament experiences can be like and we desperately want to bring that.

"We know we are not the finished article, in fact we're a long way from it, but I think people see signs of progress and enjoy watching us and the manner in which we try to play.

"We are seeing a team that is enjoying each other's company, getting on well, is very proud to represent the nation. They have some talent, have a real desire and determination to play for England.

"We ask people to pay a lot of money to watch football. In the end, we want to entertain where we possibly can. I've talked before about there being a disconnect between the supporters and the team and I've felt that there's different ways to bridge that. The most important is the way you play, and your performances and your results."

England's next session will be held at Spartak Zelenogorsk, a dedicated training base six miles from their ForRestMix hotel.

England are not among the pre-tournament favourites, and are priced by the bookies to finish second in Group G behind Belgium, but several members of the squad have been bullish about their prospects of winning the trophy.

Captain Harry Kane set the tone with a confident assessment of the team's chances and others have followed suit.

Southgate prefers a more measured view, focusing on the way the Three Lions go about their work rather than predicting the final outcome.

"Ultimately we know we'll be judged on results but we have to focus on the processes," he said.

"If we do all of those things and we play with a smile on our face, enjoy our football, enjoy being in a tournament, then I think we will get results."

Asked to sum up his own feelings about coaching his country on the biggest stage of all, he added: "I'm a very proud Englishman, and I've said before that to play for my country was my only goal as a kid.

"So to now be managing and leading my country to a World Cup is an extra special moment. I recognise the responsibility that brings but also I'm enjoying that challenge."

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