Gareth Southgate wary of ‘proud’ Ukraine as England target ‘crucial’ win

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Gareth Southgate expressed England’s “huge sympathy” with the people of Ukraine ahead of Sunday’s “crucial” European Championship qualifier between the two sides at Wembley.

Three days after kicking off Group C with an impressive 2-1 victory at reigning champions Italy, England step out in front of a sell-out crowd under the arch looking to take a major step towards the finals.

Sunday’s match is Ukraine’s first in this qualification campaign and comes with war still raging in the country after it was invaded by Russia last February.

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Asked if that backdrop made their opposition more unpredictable, England boss Southgate said: “I would say it is entirely predictable.

“They are very proud. We saw that right at the beginning of the war when they went to Scotland for the (World Cup) play-offs and Wales.

“They are a very proud group of players, you can see that. Totally committed to bringing enjoyment to their public.

“We, of course, have huge sympathy with what’s going on and support for what’s going on, but tomorrow’s a game of football and we are fully focused on trying to win the game.

“It’s a crucial game in the qualifying group, frankly. If we can follow on what we did the other night and win this one, then we’re in a really good place.”

Thursday’s trip to Euro 2020 final conquerors Italy in Naples and this clash against Ukraine, ranked 26th in the world, are comfortably the hardest pair of fixtures in a group that is completed by North Macedonia and Malta.

England are expected to get maximum points against the latter nations in June, meaning progress may be all but secured when September’s reverse fixture against the Ukrainians comes around.

If we can follow on what we did the other night and win this one, then we’re in a really good place

Gareth Southgate

The ongoing war at home means Ukraine have had to play international fixtures on the road, with the venue for their home games yet to be determined.

“I have not even thought about that,” Southgate said when asked if he hoped the match could take place in Ukraine.

“I am only thinking about tomorrow at this moment. Other people will have those discussions. We have got several matches before we get to that point.”

The immediate focus is on Sunday, with England heading into the qualifier with a depleted squad.

Marcus Rashford, Mason Mount and Nick Pope withdrew from the initial selection, with Reece James pulling out of the squad on Saturday for an assessment on what the Football Association called an “ongoing issue”.

Luke Shaw trained with the group on the eve of the game but is suspended following his sending-off for two yellow cards in Italy.

Southgate is hopeful they have “just about got enough to get through the game”, downplaying concerns over midfielders Jordan Henderson, Jude Bellingham and Kalvin Phillips.

“They’re all good,” the England boss said. “With Kalvin, (Italy) was his first 90 for a little while. He had 90 at Bristol City in the cup, so we’ll just have to assess freshness as much as anything.

“But that’s the same with the whole group. It is that time of the year and we have got to get the balance right of continuity, consistency, but also freshness.”

A special presentation will be made to skipper Harry Kane on Sunday after he scored his 54th international goal in Italy to become England’s all-time record scorer.

Brentford striker Ivan Toney will be hoping for a memorable moment of his own against Ukraine as the only uncapped member of the group looks to make his debut.

“He’s been very good,” Southgate added. “We really like him and he’s very much in our thoughts.

“You know the numbers we’ve got with us now, so there’s always the dual objective.

“There’s, of course, a desire to see players, but we are in a qualifying group, where the priority is to win the game first and foremost, so whatever we decide is with a view to doing that.”