Nothing meaningless about final England Euro qualifiers for Southgate

Some Premier League managers may be forgiven for thinking that England’s internationals against the relative footballing minnows of Malta and North Macedonia are dead rubbers. For the England manager, they are the polar opposite.

Gareth Southgate has only one more training camp and set of fixtures in March before he names his squad for next summer’s Euros. As a result, he is now finalising plans, tactical possibilities, and personnel for the finals in Germany – so these games are vital in his eyes.

Also, England need a maximum six points to be guaranteed a place in Pot One amongst the highest seeds, when the draw is made in Hamburg in a fortnight’s time.

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Gareth Southgate explained that despite not making a fifth consecutive England squad, the door isn’t closed on Raheem Sterling. Plus, explains that he’s still undecided about his future as manager after his contract ends in 2024.

So Southgate’s plan was to pick all his best, most experienced players, and start them for both matches. He did as much in his original squad selection – no first time call ups, no surprises.

But those plans – like his squad – have been decimated by injuries.

In all, 10 players who would have been classed as among his “first choice” options are unavailable. That’s almost half his squad.

In fact, he is unable to name a full matchday squad, having only 22 players left in camp – one shy of the 23 allowed by UEFA. Nevertheless, he won’t call up any replacements at this late stage of the international break, feeling it would be too challenging for them to get up to speed with the rest.

Both Jude Bellingham and Levi Colwill were likely starters against Malta on Friday night – both have withdrawn with shoulder injuries.

James Maddison, Callum Wilson and Lewis Dunk have similarly pulled out; John Stones, Reece James, Luke Shaw and Eddie Nketiah were injured even before Southgate named his original squad last week.

Marcus Rashford and Kalvin Phillips both asked for permission to join up with the squad late, as they sorted some personal matters back home: Rashford is now here, has trained, but Phillips remains absent and won’t play any part at Wembley.

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Ezri Konsa reflects on his call up to the England squad, how John Terry helped his game and the important impact of his family.

So, what is Southgate’s plan B, and how useful will these matches now prove?

Whatever the England boss was hoping to achieve, with his first picks in camp, has now been consigned to dreamland. But I still expect him to select the strongest possible starting XI to face the team ranked 171 in the FIFA world rankings.

Malta are pointless so far, bottom of Group C, having conceded 17 goals in their seven matches, and scored just twice.

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Charlotte Duncker of The Times feels Gareth Southgate hasn’t selected Raheem Sterling as he has a chance to experiment with other players whilst Miguel Delaney of The Independent believes it may be difficult for him to make the Euros squad.

Harry Kane will be licking his lips at the prospect of extending his record as England’s all-time leading goalscorer, and he will almost certainly get that chance from the start. The 24 goals in 19 games he has scored for his new employers in Munich prove he is in red-hot form.

Harry Maguire is set to be at the heart of central defence, most likely alongside Marc Guehi who is fast becoming the first choice understudy, should either Maguire or (as is the case now) John Stones be unavailable. Southgate is likely to want to give that partnership more time to build up an understanding.

Declan Rice will anchor the England midfield, and with Trent Alexander-Arnold appearing alongside the manager at the pre-match news conference, that’s a clear indicator he will get the nod to start alongside the Arsenal man on Friday night – with more freedom to roam, and exploit his brilliant array of passing.

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Sky Sports News’ Rob Dorsett has the latest news from the England camp as the squad trains ahead of the Euro 2024 qualifiers against Malta and North Macedonia .

Of the three new-boys – Ezri Konsa, Rico Lewis and Cole Palmer – I’d expect the Chelsea forward to have the best chance of making his senior international debut.

While Southgate is likely to start with his strongest XI, if and when the game and scoreline are safe, he will have some freedom to ring the changes, and try some different options.

Palmer’s brilliant form and burgeoning confidence means he could be first off the ranks among the attacking substitutes. Ten goal involvements (goals and assists) in his 14 Chelsea matches have given him great justification for getting that chance.

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Ron Walker is joined by Adam Smith to discuss why West Ham’s James Ward-Prowse should be included in Gareth Southgate’s England squad.

There is little or nothing that Southgate does not know about Saka, Foden, Grealish, Rashford, and even Jarrod Bowen. But how Palmer might be able to link up with Kane, which of his versatile roles is best suited to international football, and how he copes in that new environment – all of those questions remain unanswered.

Bellingham’s absence means there is a vacancy in England’s most advanced central midfield role – Palmer may well get to prove himself in that position at some stage over the next two matches.

Lewis may only be 18, and played only 19 Premier League games in his fledgling career, but again – his versatility may well see him make his debut over the next few days – either at right back, or more likely in a defensive midfield position.

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Mauricio Pochettino insists it was a joint decision between Chelsea and England to withdraw Reece James from Gareth Southgate’s latest squad.

Konsa may have to wait a little longer for his England senior debut, with Fikayo Tomori ahead of him in the category of “deserves a chance.” The AC Milan defender got an hour of football in England’s friendly against Australia last month, but that is his only international appearance since coming on as a substitute against Andorra 13 months ago.

So, overall, those supporters clamouring for change, and for the most “in-form” domestic players to be given a go, may again be left frustrated. But Southgate will be unapologetic.

He has spoken publicly, and privately in camp, of the build up to next summer’s Euros having already started. The players all say they have designs on winning the trophy, and so the “meaningless” games against Malta and North Macedonia are actually viewed as a key part of the preparation to make England realistic contenders.

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