The Three Lions already looking to the knockout stages

With the World Cup just a month away, there is no doubt that the preparations for each of the 32 countries that will be taking part have intensified. For the men who are in charge of this select group of nations, soon they will have arguably their toughest task to date.

That, of course, being the decision as to who will be named in each of their respective 23 man squads. One of those men at the helm is England manager Gareth Southgate, someone who also will be in charge in a major international tournament for the first time.

The former Middlesbrough and Aston Villa defender will have a good idea as to who will be on the plane this summer but, before he names his final group of players, he will first name a provisional squad before the Three Lions take part in a pair of pre-tournament friendlies.

Those fixtures against both Nigeria and Costa Rica will give Southgate two final opportunities in which to decide just who will make the cut and who will be left behind. It will also prepare the final 23 players for the trio of group-stage encounters that await England.

It is fair to say that the draw for the first phase of the tournament that was made back in December 2017 was incredibly friendly to Southgate. He has been placed in Group G along with fellow Europeans Belgium, relative minnows Panama and the North African nation of Tunisia.

And although England have perhaps failed to set alight the world footballing stage as of late, those within the FA's ranks will be more than confident that they can pass these first three tests that await them and progress to the knockout stages of the World Cup.

Without doubt, it is Belgium that will provide the biggest test with their litany of international stars. At the same time, though, the side which is now managed by former Everton and Wigan boss Roberto Martinez is far from unknown.

With so many of the squad plying their trade in the Premier League, it will almost be something of a derby fixture, as the likes of Chelsea's Eden Hazard and Thibault Courtois play alongside Tottenham's Belgian trio in a bid to top Group G and claim a confidence boosting win over the English.

Even if Belgium do draw first blood then there are at least the other group fixtures where England will not just be hoping but expecting six points. Without question, Panama are the underdogs in this competition a point made evident by the fact they are currently 1000/1 to lift the Jules Rimet trophy.

Tunisia are a team that England have faced before at this stage of proceedings; their 1998 adventures in France started with a 2-0 win and there will be few complaints if Gareth Southgate and his men record a similar result this time around.

There was huge disappointment in the previous edition of this competition when England finished bottom of a group which contained Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica. However, the usual hysteria going into a finals is perhaps not as high as it usually has been in the past.

A repeat of the first round exit back in 2014 is simply out of the question, but with the players that Southgate has at his disposal, they are more than capable of making the round of 16. Should that hurdle be cleared, the belief in the camp will no doubt increase. The question is just how long will England's Russian journey go on for?