LONDON – It is a topic that has not, to the best of my knowledge, been debated — that England might fail to qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals. It is not so much a taboo subject, but a general acceptance that England will qualify (because this is what it does, it qualifies for finals) and then under-perform and/or loses on penalties to Germany (because this, too, is what usually happens).
Only the group winner in Europe qualifies for Russia automatically and after four matches England leads Slovenia by two points. That scenario is likely to remain after Sunday’s games when England hosts Lithuania and Slovenia visits Scotland.
Ranked 58th by FIFA,Slovenia is hardly blessed with household names, but coach Srecko Katanec has fashioned a team whose whole is more than the sum of its parts. Slovenia has lost only one of its last nine World Cup qualifying games, including a 0-0 home draw with England. While there may be an assumption England will be in Russia the summer after next, Gareth Southgate will take nothing for granted as he prepares his squad for the game against Lithuania.
If even the suggestion of not qualifying for Russia sounds ridiculous, so would predicting a loss to Iceland at Euro 2016. It is too early in Southgate’s reign to make any reasonable judgment and the match at Wembley against Lithuania will be his first competitive match as permanent manager. England has yet to concede a goal in its four 2018 qualifiers, but the wounds from the embarrassment of Iceland have yet to fully heal.
However, the green shoots of recovery are visible and to Southgate’s credit he is looking beyond the Premier League’s heavyweights for England players. After the Euro 2016 debacle there were many who believed that players with lesser clubs may have more hunger and inner strength. Inevitably the majority of any England team will be drawn from the most successful clubs, but the days of those from Manchester, Liverpool and London having the monopoly could be ending.
There was much to be encouraged about from the 1-0 loss to Germany on Wednesday where England’s performance was,despite the result, heartening and an injustice. Burnley’s Michael Keane looked assured on his debut in a back-three defensive formation and with Gary Cahill suspended Sunday he may retain his place alongside John Stones and Chris Smalling.Southgate knows Keane from his time in charge of the Under-21s and the 24-year-old looked assured against the world champion, albeit a far from full-strength Germany.
Jake Livermore of West Bromwich also delivered a solid performance in his full debut with Southampton’s Nathan Redmond and Jake Ward-Prowse impressing as substitutes.
As Southgate searches for candidates who will “not be brittle at major tournaments” to use the words of Football Association chief executive Martin Glenn, he is obviously prepared to select players in form, regardless of whether they play for a top-six club, which has almost been mandatory with previous managers.
The back-three system, which has served Chelsea so well this season, is worth sticking with, not least because in the Tottenham pair Kyle Walker and, when fit, Danny Rose, Southgate would have the ideal wing-backs, full of pace and precision.
Eric Dier will probably retain the defensive midfield role against Lithuania because Jordan Henderson is injured, but it is the continued improvement of Dele Alli and Adam Lallana that can give England fans guarded confidence for the road to Russia.
Dele, as he prefers to be called,was the outstanding player against Germany, even if he was guilty of a glaring miss. His control, vision and passing made a mockery of former Germanyinternational Dietmar Hamann’s assertion that no England player would get in the Germany side.
Lallana is clearly benefiting from working with Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool and the way he combines with Dele means there is probably no way back for Wayne Rooney in an attacking midfield role. The 3-4-2-1 system Southgate used in Germany gives Dele and Lallana the freedom and space to express themselves though Dele must cut out his theatrics because he will be punished by less tolerant referees at the international level if he falls over too easily.
While there is cautious optimism on the pitch, the mindless morons who doubled as England followers in Dortmund proved that sadly some things will never change. Their idea of patriotism was to boo the German national anthem and chant about wars and the IRA. Not about England or any players, just asking whether Germany had ever won a war, doing bomber arm movements and Nazi salutes.
It is not banter, it is not funny to attempt to ridicule supporters who respectfully applauded the England national anthem about wars that ended 99 and 72 years ago. It is insulting and their country does not need them.
Appropriate sanction: Tim Sherwood has managed two football clubs — Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa. Both sacked him. Last November, Sherwood was appointed director of football at Swindon Town, a club heading for relegation from League One.
Earlier this week Sherwood was given a two-match stadium ban by the Football Association after an expletive-filled tirade at referee Mark Brown during Swindon’s defeat at Bury last month. It was an astonishing and condescending attack on the referee and the punishment was the minimum he deserved.
Sherwood, mysteriously nicknamed Tactics Tim, has been used as a television pundit despite his distance from the English language. No is “nah”, wasn’t can become “weren’t”, think begins with an “f”and on one memorable occasion feathers were rustled rather than ruffled. However, TV seems to see Tactics Tim as some sort of chirpy Cockney character.
It must be hoped that following his unforgivable diatribe toward Brown television does not touch him with a barge pole because Tactics Tim can never be taken seriously again.
Oh, this is the same Tim Sherwood who once accused Benfica coach Jorge Jesus of “lacking class” after not shaking hands with him at the end of a game.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.