England players all smiles at a training session ahead of their World Cup qualifier against San Marino on Thursday. Courtesy: Twitter
Three World Cup qualifiers against San Marino, Albania and Poland over the next week provide England manager Gareth Southgate with his final chance to experiment before he names his squad for the delayed Euro 2020.
The Three Lions will enjoy home advantage for most of the Euro as they aim to end a 55-year wait to win a major international tournament.
Wembley host all three of their group games against Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic, as well as both semi-finals and the final.
Fans could even be back in stadiums by June and July to cheer Southgate’s men on thanks to the speed of the UK’s coronavirus vaccination roll out.
The pressure is on the England boss to build on a surprise run to the World Cup semi-finals in 2018, especially given the rich resources he now has to choose from. Some of the big decisions that await Southgate in the coming months are:
GOALKEEPER: One of the few areas where England are not blessed with a world class talent is in goal.
Jordan Pickford has retained his status as number one despite a number of costly errors for Everton. However, Pickford is absent this week due to a rib injury, handing Burnley’s Nick Pope his long-awaited chance to prove himself in competitive games at international level.
Pope has proven himself to be a reliable Premier League shot-stopper, but his distribution has counted against him.
Dean Henderson could therefore emerge as Pickford’s challenger. The 24-year-old has started Manchester United’s last seven games, but may lose his place when David De Gea returns from paternity leave after the international break.
DEFENCE: Southgate will be judged not only on what personnel he picks, but what system.
The former Middlesbrough boss largely used three at the back in Euro 2020 qualifying, but there have been calls for him to find space for more of his attacking talent.
A return to form from United’s Luke Shaw and Manchester City’s John Stones helps solve two problem positions should Southgate revert to a back four. Shaw will challenge Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell at left-back, while Stones is expected to start alongside Harry Maguire at centre-back.
The depth of talent at right-back means Trent Alexander-Arnold has been dropped for his dip in form for Liverpool after an outstanding season in 2019/20. Reece James will battle the more experienced Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker for that role.
MIDFIELD: Despite the absence of Jack Grealish and James Maddison due to injury, Southgate’s latest squad is still blessed with an array of young creative talent.
Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Jude Bellingham will be looking to cement their places in the squad for the summer.
At 28, Jesse Lingard is now one of the older heads in the squad and has earned a recall after a bright start to a loan spell at West Ham.
But a lack of game time at Tottenham looks set to end Dele Alli’s chances of an international return.
Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson faces a race against time to prove his fitness for Euro 2020 after groin surgery.
West Ham’s Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips of Leeds are the two holding midfielders in pole position if Henderson fails to make it.
FORWARDS: Captain Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling have been England’s reliable source of goals since the World Cup.
Fitness permitting, both seem guaranteed to start the Euro with the final place in the front three coming down to battle between Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho. There is fierce competition just to make the squad in the front line.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s prolific season for Everton has seen him edge ahead as the reserve for Kane at number nine.
Bukayo Saka is included in the latest squad, ahead of Mason Greenwood and Callum Hudson-Odoi, who were named in the Under-21 squad for the group stages of their own European Championship this month.
Leicester’s Harvey Barnes is also a contender as only a knee injury robbed him of a call-up this month.