There hasn’t been a lot of drama around the England squad under Gareth Southgate. Even reaching and then losing a FIFA World Cup semi-final seemed somehow serene.
Off-pitch tales of misbehavior and friction have been limited to Raheem Sterling getting a tattoo and showing up late for camp – meaningless bollocks, to varying extents – and the appalling racism in Bulgaria.Embed from Getty Images
It feels like a long time since Sam Allardyce dragged England onto the front pages but the national team is back with a bang.
Sterling, again, is the man in the spotlight.
As a result of his clash with Joe Gomez he will not feature in Thursday’s UEFA EURO 2020 qualifying match against Montenegro at Wembley.
It’s hardly a headline-hogging Hong Kong piss-up but it’s not the publicity the FA wanted for this match and they will be displeased at the distraction after the resources they’ve poured into selling England’s 1,000th international.
From a glorified advertisement at the National Football Museum to the ceremonial numbering of every England player in history, the effort has been slick up until this point.
It’s a nice landmark and a good opportunity to pause and reflect on the players we’ve loved, lost and come to loathe since 1872.
Southgate, too, could have done without the distraction. England aren’t over the line yet and a result is required over this long international weekend.
The training ground incident has been put behind the squad and shouldn’t affect England further. Southgate’s side have won five of their six games so far, losing the other in Prague, and 26 goals in six matches is a return that speaks for itself.
The second of those wins was in Podgorica in March, a 5-1 thumping of Montenegro inspired by two goals either side of half time by Ross Barkley. He misses the return tie through injury.
As away internationals go it was almost disarmingly comfortable. Montenegro’s history is short but they’ve already had better international generations than this one.
Thursday’s visitors have been eliminated from EURO 2020 having lost four and drawn three of their seven qualifiers to date.
They’ve scored just three times; once against Bulgaria in their first match, once against England in their second, once against Kosovo in their third.
That goal, scored by Stefan Mugoša after 69 minutes back on June 7th, was the last competitive goal for Faruk Hadžibegić’s team.Embed from Getty Images
The England line-up that will seek to keep that record intact and secure their own qualification will be without Sterling and suspended midfielder Jordan Henderson, the peacemaker in this week’s flashpoint despite his physical absence.
Declan Rice and Fabian Delph missed training on Tuesday – Delph later withdrew from the squad altogether – but Southgate has at his disposal most of his first choice side.
England will likely start with Jordan Pickford in goal behind a defence comprising Kieran Trippier, Harry Maguire, Ben Chilwell and one of Tyrone Mings and John Stones. After his experience in Bulgaria, Mings might just get the nod.
Henderson’s place in midfield should create room for both Harry Winks and Declan Rice, while Barkley’s usual position in the starting line-up gives Southgate a dilemma.
He’ll choose between the experience of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the neatness of Mason Mount or a debut for James Maddison. Southgate’s habits here suggest the Liverpool man will get the start.Embed from Getty Images
Up front, England will be skippered by Harry Kane and the Tottenham Hotspur striker will probably be flanked by Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, despite the form and fitness of the latter looking decidedly sketchy against Bayern Munich last weekend.
England would qualify with a point on Thursday but only three will suffice in the eyes of the squad and supporters alike.
Amid all the media noise around the Sterling incident, all the 1,000th international niceties, Southgate and his players have a job to do.