The imminent prospect of relegation from the Nations League’s elite is unlikely to worry Gareth Southgate. What might be troubling the England coach far more is the fitness issues, poor form or fragile club status of some of his key players two months out from the World Cup.
From the team that started the European Championship final against Italy last year, defenders Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw have been dropped by Manchester United and central midfielder Kalvin Phillips requires shoulder surgery and could miss the World Cup. Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford is out injured, center back John Stones has been playing as a right back for Manchester City, and midfielders Declan Rice and Mason Mount have been in underwhelming form for West Ham and Chelsea, respectively, in the first six weeks of the Premier League.
There’s plenty for Southgate to ponder, then, heading into matches against Italy in Milan on Friday and Germany at London’s Wembley Stadium on Monday — in a Nations League group where England is in last place after two draws and two losses. Another loss in Italy will see England drop into the second tier of the UEFA tournament, which will damage the pride of Southgate’s squad, if nothing else.
It’s the bigger picture essentially, the World Cup that is key for Southgate, and what he will effectively be judged on, with some critics having rounded on him after a shocking 4-0 home loss to Hungary in England’s last match. Southgate will want to see a reaction in the coming week.
“I’m not going to speak for the manager, but I’m sure he’s got certain players that are 100% to go to the World Cup, and then there’s obviously certain places and numbers that are still up for grabs,” England midfielder Jack Grealish said. “We have two matches now that are going to be very tough opposition and this is really like your pre-World Cup camp. We were saying before that, before the Euros, we had a good few weeks of training sessions, good friendlies, and we’re not going to get that this time. But everyone’s in the same boat, so it’s something that we need to embrace and look forward to.”
Nick Pope is likely to fill in for Pickford, who should be back soon after the international break, while Jude Bellingham might be favorite to replace Phillips after enhancing his burgeoning reputation with strong performances for Borussia Dortmund.
At age 19, Bellingham has so much potential and Rice — a lock in central midfield under Southgate — envisages playing alongside the teenager for a decade. “I hope that we can go on for the next 10 years and create a special, special bond in the middle of the pitch,” Rice said.
“He’s energetic, he’s strong, has self-belief, no fear,” Rice added. “He’s got everything as a 19 year old, you know. He’s a man, he has played on the big occasions already.” Maguire is set to start, while Southgate has to choose between Shaw and Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell at left back, neither of whom have seen much game time recently.
“It is not ideal,” Southgate said of some of his key players not playing for their clubs, “but we feel they have been, and can be, important players for us. It is not a perfect situation but there is still a lot of football to be played before Qatar.” Still in shock from failing to qualify for a second consecutive World Cup, European champion Italy is looking to regain some respect. That process could begin by reaching the Nations League’s Final Four.
Hungary leads on seven points, one more than Germany, and they meet in Leipzig on Friday. Italy is on five points and England has two.
“We know we owe something to our fans,” Italy center forward Ciro Immobile said. “In tough times, the national team has represented a common bond for everyone and we saw how united Italy was during the European Championship. That’s where we need to restart from.”
Immobile, who was criticized for his lack of goals during World Cup qualifying, considered retiring from the national team. “As the weeks went by I realized that it shouldn’t be others to decide my destiny,” he said. “I still have a lot to give.” Italy is missing midfielder Marco Verratti and winger Federico Chiesa due to injury.