England’s final World Cup auditions may be behind closed doors when they face Italy in Molineux on Saturday, but the stage is huge for any member of Gareth Southgate’s squad as they face Qatar in November.
The gallery will only hold 3,000 spectators, mostly schoolchildren, as part of the penalty imposed by the Football Association over crowd problems during the Euro 2020 final against Italy at Wembley last July.
And while the atmosphere in Wolverhampton will be surreal, the wider significance of this Nations League match will not be lost on Southgate or his team, even as the manager himself admitted that the fact that England have to play in a largely empty stadium is “a embarrassment”.
The loss on penalties in England’s first major final since their World Cup victory in 1966 left a bitter aftertaste, but now many players are hoping this Nations League match can pave the way to the next showpiece in November.
Southgate and his team will be in a more buoyant mood after captain Harry Kane’s 50th goal earned them a point in a 1-1 draw in Germany on Tuesday, following the mediocre defeat in Hungary last weekend.
He is working on formations and finding his best team to start the World Cup opener against Iran in November.
The late start to the World Cup is also shifting the emphasis on squad, with Premier League form and fitness in the early months of next season now being a factor.
Southgate played a 4-2-3-1 system in Germany, a variation on his familiar three-man central defense with fullbacks so often used in the past. This flexibility with form will also create opportunities for the staff, making the meeting with Italy and the return with Hungary, this time at a sold-out Molineux on Tuesday, vital.
As England prepare for the squad that left the country heartbroken last summer, there are players within the current squad hoping to build on good impressions, while others still hope to make an impact.
Manchester City’s Jack Grealish will fall into the first tier after an explosive 18-minute cameo in Munich, where he tormented Germany. He will want to do the same against Italy.
Grealish initially appeared to be fighting to win Southgate’s trust and his 22 caps for England have been evenly split between starts and appearances as a substitute. He scored one goal, with six assists.
He looked like a confident player against Germany, even admitting that at times he feels like he is playing with England with more freedom than Manchester City.
Southgate said: “He had a fantastic impact against Germany. He’s a player that we love to work with. He has a great mentality, a great character. He’s a really good guy to have in the group. He’s happy when he’s a football on his feet.”
Kane’s desire to play every game as he approaches Wayne Rooney’s record of 53 international goals may not be fully satisfied in the remaining two games of this break, but with four games to go before the opener in Qatar, he could still could still be in history by the time he leads Southgate’s team out for another trophy tilt.
Tammy Abraham will be desperate to take his chance and will certainly be well acquainted with Italy after scoring 27 goals in a hugely successful first season under Jose Mourinho at Roma, winning the Europa Conference League.
Southgate will have a lot of his side in mind, but the difference this time around is that ‘bolters’ – the latecomers who wager their claim – have more time to impress.
If the World Cup were in its regular calendar, these matches would be part of the final build-up. Now they are competitive matches in their own right, where form and fitness are also given a longer period of time to take into account.
Southgate have to make decisions in terms of form and the players who fit, which for many means a lot of rides on these games, while September’s Nations League matches against Italy in Milan and at home against Germany provide the perfect platform for final fine-tuning. .
West Ham’s Jarrod Bowen will be delighted to take the English stage as one of the few successes in Budapest and then as an influence, even if he only had 10 minutes, in Munich.
Southgate have their trusted lieutenants captain Kane, Harry Maguire and John Stones in defence, with goalkeeper Jordan Pickford the undisputed number one.
He returned to his central European Championship midfield of Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice in Germany, while Raheem Sterling was also back.
He won’t give up any secrets, but Southgate’s World Cup plans have been long in the making. The English manager will have a clear direction in mind before taking on the challenge in Qatar in November, hoping the first weeks of the Premier League season will not be injured.
This does not mean that there is no time for someone to play in or out of their strategy, which means that the meeting with Italy is of great importance.
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