England’s match against Kosovo on Sunday is the deadest of dead rubbers. The outcome of UEFA EURO 2020 Qualifying Group A is set.
The visitors secured their place at the finals next summer with Thursday’s decimation of a dire Montenegro team and don’t even have details to play for; three Group D matches at Wembley are locked in.
Kosovo can only finish third, having already won eight more points than Montenegro and four fewer than second-placed confirmed qualifiers Czech Republic.
Montenegro have played all their matches and are out. They would finish last in the group if Bulgaria somehow wangled a point out of their behind-closed-doors home tie against Czech Republic on Sunday.
They have little incentive to do so. The workings of the UEFA Nations League and its qualification intersection with a 24-team European Championships mean that they will feature in the qualification play-offs in March.Embed from Getty Images
So, too, will Kosovo. Bernard Challandes and his players will fancy their chances of being one of the four teams who’ll qualify through that route and should take confidence from their three Group A wins – so far – and their performance at St Mary’s in September.
The first of two well-taken Valon Berisha goals punished a defensive mistake after just 34 seconds before a lethal England first half took the teams into the break with the score at 5-1.
But Kosovo, unlike England’s other Group A foes, showed no intention of wilting in the second half despite the deficit.
Berisha cracked in their second early in the half and Vedat Muriqi scored from the penalty spot after Harry Maguire had brought him down.Embed from Getty Images
5-3 didn’t flatter England’s attackers but it was a real let-off for the defence, whose efforts left much to be desired.
They won’t have to contend with Muriqi on Sunday because the Fenerbahçe striker misses out through injury.
Sheffield Wednesday cult hero Atdhe Nuhiu – one of four players in the Kosovo squad who play in the EFL Championship – started up front against Czech Republic on Thursday and scored the opening goal of a 2-1 loss.
England manager Gareth Southgate can view Sunday’s fixture in one of two ways: an end, or a beginning.
If it’s the end of an already successful qualifying group then he might elect to explore the depth of his squad, opening up potential debuts for Fikayo Tomori and Dean Henderson, and another look at James Maddison and Callum Hudson-Odoi.Embed from Getty Images
If it’s the beginning of preparations for the summer then Southgate is more likely to focus on players he’ll expect to feature heavily at Wembley in June.
If anything it’s nice, as an England supporter, to be unable to draw a defined line between the two categories.
All we know, really, is that Raheem Sterling will start against Kosovo.
After the week England have had literally at the hands of their best player, that one guarantee might be the most controversial selection of the eleven who line up for the anthems on Sunday.