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'Time for England to justify pre-Euro 2024 favourites tag'

Gareth Southgate and Harry Kane

After eight years in the job, England manager Gareth Southgate has plenty of practice in blocking out the noise and criticism that is currently being aimed in his direction after a mixed start to Euro 2024.

He accepts, however, that the contentious conversation provoked by England’s dismal showing in the 1-1 draw with Denmark in Frankfurt will only end if those words are replaced by actions against Slovenia in Cologne on Tuesday.

England have already reached the last 16 but can secure top spot in Group C - and avoid a knockout tie against Germany - with victory on Tuesday.

However, a convincing performance is also important to stem growing doubts about their status as pre-tournament favourites following a patchy performance in beating Serbia 1-0 then a virtual no-show against the Danes.

Southgate says he had not heard the colourful one-word verdict of former England striker Gary Lineker after the Denmark game until told about it when he arrived for media duties before their final Group C game.

"I take myself out of it," said Southgate. "I'm oblivious to it. It's not important to me at all.

"I don't need to listen to externals because I'm my own biggest critic and I think most of the players are as well."

The mood in England's camp before meeting the Slovakians was one of calm but also with a definite edge after the fallout from the Denmark draw.

England cannot slip up against a Slovenia side ranked 57th in the world.

The siege mentality is one of sport's oldest motivational tools but must be backed up with results. England's players can rail at criticism all they want but the best way to silence disapproving noise is to perform as they have shown they can in the past.

Southgate recognised as much as he said: "I can talk all I like but we have to produce it on the pitch" before adding: "I'm expecting we will do that against Slovenia".

England's manager and his staff will have had five days to transform his side into one capable of justifying its rating as a pre-Euro 2024 favourite.

He is expected to bring in Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher for Alexander-Arnold, ending that brief flirtation with the Liverpool player in midfield - an experiment surely better road tested before Euro 2024 than during it.

It is likely to be the only change, perhaps not enough to satisfy those calling for a shake-up after Denmark, with Gallagher grateful for the opportunity after failing to make an impact in that game other than picking up a yellow card.

If anyone was expecting Southgate to panic and shuffle his pack, they will be sorely disappointed. He appears wedded to his current system, banking on the talent at his disposal to provide solutions.

Declan Rice seemed happy enough to play alongside Gallagher. For all their efforts, the partnership of Rice and Alexander-Arnold was badly balanced, ending up as the worst of all worlds with neither able to exert influence by dropping too deep.

"Conor is a team-mate I would love to have on my team," Rice told BBC Sport. "He works his socks off, you feel so secure and safe in there with him.

"I think he has surprised so many people this year with his ability on the ball, with how well he breaks forward with it, how he gets into the box and scores goals.

"Every time I have played with Conor, which hasn't been much, I have really enjoyed it. I know him really well as a guy, I know his family really well, he is a lovely boy. It's another great chance to stamp our mark."

Southgate is right that it is time to deliver because many of the harsh words aimed at England were justified, even though their glass is half-full when measured by their position in the group.

England have basked in praise and goodwill during Southgate's eight-year renaissance so can have no complaints when a drop in standards of performance comes under the microscope.

There can be no repeat of the alarming revelation from captain Harry Kane that England did not know when to press, or the wholesale removal of the front three with more than 20 minutes left, as happened with Kane, Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden against Denmark in a graphic indicator of their lack of attacking creativity.

Those first two games carried the worryingly listless 'end of days' feel that accompanied England at major tournaments in the pre-Southgate days of Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson but the current squad has credit in the bank at these events, and the chance to change the mood.

England under Southgate also have form for slow starts, such as poor group performances against Scotland at Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar before improving.

For all the downbeat verdicts, they should still finish at the head of their group - then perhaps the real England will show up in Germany.