World Cup: England and Gareth Southgate received a free pass to the knockout stages in Friday's draw

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The two most relieved Englishmen in Doha on Friday night were doubtless Jermaine Jenas and Gareth Southgate.

Jenas for hosting an at times rather complicated and fussy World Cup draw without a hiccup and Southgate for being handed what already looks like a free pass to the knockout stages of November and December’s tournament.

No World Cup ever gives you quite that, of course. England have suffered enough embarrassments in the past to know. Southgate and his squad will not be complacent.

Gareth Southgate will be happy with England's draw

Jermaine Jenas presented Friday's World Cup draw aand looked relieved too

Gareth Southgate and Jermaine Jenas were the most relieved men in Doha on Friday night

Let's not over-analyse it - England have been given a free pass to the knockout rounds after being drawn with the USA, Iran and either Scotland, Wales or Ukraine

Let’s not over-analyse it – England have been given a free pass to the knockout rounds after being drawn with the USA, Iran and either Scotland, Wales or Ukraine

Regardless, if every half an hour in Qatar next winter is as straightforward as this one was then England will have a very good chance of going deep into a third successive tournament.

The inclusion of a possible game with Scotland or Wales as England’s third fixture in Group B adds a little jeopardy. England squeaked home 2-1 against Wales in Euro 2016 but trailed at half-time and it was largely an unpleasant and emotional struggle.

They drew 0-0 at Wembley against Scotland in last year’s Euros and that was by some distance England’s worst showing of the tournament. They could have lost that one.

So Southgate will perhaps look ahead to the outcome of June’s play-off procedure and have his fingers crossed for Ukraine, beaten so handsomely by his team in the Euro 2020 quarter-final in Rome last summer. 

Jenas hosted an at times rather complicated and fussy World Cup draw without a hiccup

Jenas hosted an at times rather complicated and fussy World Cup draw without a hiccup

Southgate was handed what looks like a free pass to the knockout stages of the tournament

Southgate was handed what looks like a free pass to the knockout stages of the tournament

England were given one of the best draws they could have hoped for out in Qatar on Friday

England were given one of the best draws they could have hoped for out in Qatar on Friday

The Three Lions will face Iran, USA and either Wales, Scotland or Ukraine at the tournament

The Three Lions will face Iran, USA and either Wales, Scotland or Ukraine at the tournament

But beyond that he knows his developing team will play opening World Cup fixtures against Iran and USA on November 21 and 25 and he will have no complaints about that whatsoever.

There will be those who seek to overanalyse this draw. There will be those who suggest a group lacking a big name opponent will leave England under-prepared for when the challenges of the knockout stages roll around during a tournament that will be slightly shorter and more compact than recent versions.

But that is a specious argument. An easy group is an easy group and that is what England have. Any of the other nations drawn from Pot One last night would certainly swap. France, Spain and Brazil have all been handed group-stage examinations, for example, that already look rather taxing.

England had this kind of straightforward group four years ago in Russia. Back then it was games against Tunisia and Panama and then a clash with Belgium for top spot that by the time it came around had started to look like something of a mixed blessing anyway. This time it could well be the same.

Coming in the middle of a domestic season, this is a World Cup that, even more than before, teams and players will be required to grow into. Undoubtedly, players will arrive in the Middle East carrying injuries. A summer tournament is usually preceded by a five or six-week preamble. Unfit players have time to holiday, rest and heal. Not so this time.

USA will take on England in their second fixture

Iran will face them on the opening World Cup day

England cannot afford to be complacent but USA and Iran are more than winnable games

The draw will give Southgate early flexibility with selections in the midst of a domestic season

The draw will give Southgate early flexibility with selections in the midst of a domestic season

So if, for example, Harry Kane or Raheem Sterling travels to Doha with an injury, far better for early games to be against Iran and the USA rather than, say, Germany and Senegal. This is a group draw that may yet afford Southgate valuable flexibility in his early selections.

There were some potential problems for England hidden in this draw. Germany, Denmark, Uruguay and Holland lurking in Pot Two. Poland and Serbia in Pot Three. As each curve ball fizzed by his ears for somebody else in the audience to try to catch, Southgate would have been excused for breaking into the widest of grins.

The England manager is a calm and pragmatic man. They are two of his qualities. He will look at England’s half of the draw and see potential problems ahead. But he will also know that it does not serve to pay too much attention to that.

England’s passage through the Euros last summer was turned on its head by the strange nature of the way the group and early knockout stages went. It could quite easily happen again in Qatar. Players from all over Europe will arrive mid-season in various stages of form, fitness and confidence. This will only increase the likelihood of some funky early results.

Southgate's reign as England manager has been blessed by experiences like Friday night

Southgate’s reign as England manager has been blessed by experiences like Friday night

The Three Lions boss has received a head start in his bid to lead them to glory in Qatar

The Three Lions boss has received a head start in his bid to lead them to glory in Qatar

Southgate’s reign as England boss has been blessed by experiences like Friday night’s.

Those not convinced by his two tournament achievements argue that the roads to a semi-final in Russia and last summer’s final in London were so wide and accommodating that the manager of the Dog and Duck could have driven a team down them.

As always, Southgate and his players will be judged by what happens at the back end of this tournament. The 51-year-old still bristles at suggestions that he was too cautious on those big nights against Croatia in 2018 and Italy three summers later. Now he has been handed a head start as he bids to take the next step.

England will play on the opening day of a World Cup for the first time since hosting the tournament in 1966. That occasion against Iran on a Monday in the desert should be quite something in itself and there are just 233 days to go. Suddenly it all feels very real.

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