San Marino qualifier provides England rookies with key chance to lay down a marker ahead of World Cup

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·3-min read
San Marino qualifier provides England rookies with key chance to lay down a marker ahead of World Cup
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A year from now, England will be in the midst of their chaotic, week-long preparations for the World Cup, which is due to start on November 21, 2022.

Gareth Southgate is too respectful of tonight’s opponents to talk as if his side have already secured their place in Qatar, but that is effectively the reality, with England needing just a point in their final qualifier here in San Marino.

Even an unthinkable, historic defeat would likely be enough, with Poland also requiring a seven-goal swing to leapfrog England into top spot in Group I.

Southgate’s squad has remained relatively consistent over the past year, but a lot can change between now and next winter, and tonight’s match should offer a tantalising glimpse of the future.

Southgate began the autumn by talking about the importance of youth and a “fresh cycle” after the European Championship, but he has been reluctant to blood a new crop of youngsters in qualifying, instead wanting to reward the players who came so close to glory in the summer.

Friday’s 5-0 rout of Albania at Wembley was another reminder that, for all the steady evolution of England’s squad, Southgate remains reliant on a core group of senior players.

Goalscorers Harry Kane, Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson, and Jordan Pickford, Kyle Walker, John Stones and Raheem Sterling all starred in one of the most impressive displays of the manager’s reign.

This week, though, circumstances have forced Southgate to turn to youth and it should be a fresh-faced England squad which takes to the field tonight — although the manager has not ruled out starting Kane. Arsenal pair Aaron Ramsdale and Emile Smith Rowe are expected to start and are well-placed to join team-mate Bukayo Saka as regulars in the squad.

Ramsdale’s excellence since joining the Gunners from Sheffield United suggests he can provide competition for Pickford and he should be rewarded with a first cap, although West Brom’s Sam Johnstone has been the No2 since the Euros.

Smith Rowe’s rapid rise was illustrated by him making his England debut on Friday a year and a day after appearing for Arsenal’s development side in the Papa John’s Trophy at Gillingham.

 (The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)

The absence of Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson means Jude Bellingham is a certain starter tonight and the teenager remains the likeliest player, youthful or experienced, to improve Southgate’s settled first XI.

There should also be a debut for Crystal Palace loanee Conor Gallagher, who was called up from the Under-21 squad following a spate of withdrawals, including Sterling and Jack Grealish. Mason Mount and Luke Shaw have not travelled after dental surgery and concussion respectively.

Southgate has also name-checked Palace centre-half Marc Guehi, who was on the verge of a call-up this month, and is a good bet to leapfrog one of tonight’s likely defensive pairing of Conor Coady and Tyrone Mings in the next 12 months.

Tottenham’s Oliver Skipp could come into Southgate’s thinking, while Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi has backed himself to return to the seniors.

“There’s always opportunities for players who are playing well,” said Southgate on Sunday. “Phil [Foden] and Jude weren’t with us at the beginning of the last season. Phil’s first call-up was last September, so he was only a one-year cycle going into a tournament.”

Kane would relish the chance to fill his boots tonight after his hat-trick against Albania moved him to within nine goals of Wayne Rooney’s all-time record of 53.

Tottenham would likely have mixed feelings about Kane playing in what is an effectively meaningless game, although it would provide with him another opportunity to build rhythm.

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