The first international break of any season is usually a mild annoyance, butting in just as we’re getting into our Premier League stride. The table is beginning to take shape and the narratives are forming and then from nowhere it’s excusez-moi, grazie, here’s a routine work-out for the bigger nations and it’s sod’s law that your club’s best overseas talent is bound to pull a hammy on a Latvian pitch.
At least, on this occasion, there are genuine causes for interest, not least concerning an England side who seemingly only yesterday were competing in a Euro final. Across the next week or so, Gareth Southgate’s men take on the two biggest threats in their World Cup 2022 qualifying group and all with a squad that’s at varying stages of readiness.
Indeed, Southgate’s selections has already sparked a talking point or two, before a ball has even been kicked in anger.
Is Kane able and other squad issues
The England boss was on a hiding to nothing assembling a 25-man collective, several of whom are not yet up to speed after a truncated pre-season. What were his alternatives though in reality?
Even so, the omission of Mason Greenwood surprised, with the Manchester United forward becoming only the fourth teenager to score 20+ goals in the Premier League this weekend. Greenwood has not featured since breaking quarantine guidelines in Iceland last September and it’s starting to look like an issue in need of resolution.
Instead, Patrick Bamford has received his first call-up and the Leeds striker will act as back-up to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who is struggling with a thigh problem, and Harry Kane whose head is still spinning from this summer’s big transfer saga.
If that suggests all is not quite right up front, the same can be said of the defence.
Tyrone Mings is still joining up with his international team-mates despite having a broken rib while John Stones has yet to star for Manchester City this season. It is entirely feasible that Conor Coady will partner Harry Maguire in Budapest on Thursday evening, the Wolves stopper picking up only his sixth cap.
Elsewhere, the inclusion of Jesse Lingard raised many eyebrows. Having been overlooked for the Euros after an outstanding latter half to last season, the midfielder is now back in favour despite playing precisely four minutes of Premier League football this term.
From this maelstrom of wait-and-sees it is sensible to focus on what we know for sure. Harry Kane – regardless of his circumstance – typically finds the net for his country and this is especially true in major tournament qualifying games. The Spurs hit-man has fired home a remarkable 21 in his last 20.
The smallest of minnows
Three days after a tricky trip to Hungary, the Three Lions face a very different challenge at Wembley, though in truth ‘challenge’ is pushing it.
Andorra have a population smaller than Gateshead; they are minus a striker who has scored more than one international goal, and their highest profile player – Marc Vales – turns out for Sandefjord in Norway. This is not David v Goliath. This is Arsenal coming up against any well-organised, decent outfit.
We can assume then that a cricket score is afoot, or at least a comfortable victory achieved in third gear. On the previous four times these countries have met, England have racked up a 16-0 aggregate while their last ten outings against teams ranked beyond FIFA’s top 50 have averaged 4.8 goals per game. On three of those occasions England helped themselves to 6+ goals. During Southgate’s tenure, his team have excelled at being flat-track bullies and this is meant wholly as a compliment.
This is not a contest therefore to get cute in and predict the far-fetched. Instead, in a damning indictment on the inequity of international football, our only consideration is to choose between a score-line of 4-0 to 7-0.
Whether it’s against Hungary, Andorra, or Poland next week, it feels increasingly likely that Bamford will make his international bow in the days ahead, presumably from the bench.
Should this be the case, then the player who scored 17 in 38 in the top-flight last term and opened his 2021/22 account on Sunday with a late equalizer against Burnley, doesn’t have far to look for inspiration as regards to making an immediate impact. Both Harry Kane and Calvert-Lewin scored on their England debuts, as too in recent years has Marcus Rashford, Callum Wilson and Ollie Watkins.
Watkins grabbed the headlines with his first effort on goal in England’s straightforward dismissal of San Marino last March.
Poland and Hungary
The Hungarians currently represent the biggest threat to England’s hopes of ultimately securing top spot in Group I but surely Poland are the greater danger overall, principally because in their ranks is a striker who boasts freakish stats.
Robert Lewandowski has snagged 69 goals for the Eagles in 122 appearances while last season he broke a long-standing record in the Bundesliga, scoring 41 league goals in 29 games for Bayern. The 33-year-old has six in six for Poland of late but with some rare players frankly they transcend form, good or bad, making those figures redundant. He’s the best around and even if England have conceded just once in their last 900 minutes of football, that cannot be ignored.
It is telling that Lewandowski was absent when England triumphed 2-1 in their corresponding fixture last spring but just as revealing was Poland’s chaotic Euro campaign. Determined to play a more expansive style, their three games were – by and large- entertaining to watch but they lost twice and drew once. So often too, they are quickly the architects of their own demise, conceding inside half an hour on eight occasions on their last ten games.
Hungary meanwhile, have the same problem, only delayed by an hour, with their last ten goals conceded all converted in the second half. Six have been scored in the last ten minutes.
The Magyars have not beaten England since 1962 but host them on Thursday buoyed by an impressive Euros that included nullifications of France and Germany against all expectation. They go into this one having lost only once in 14 and there are some half-decent scalps in that number, with Serbia and Turkey both bested.
Roland Sallai has three assists in his last four games while Adam Szalai is always a menace up front.