Soccer | PREMIER REPORT

Southgate will keep World Cup foes guessing

by Christopher Davies

With two friendly matches before the real thing gets underway in Russia you would think coaches should select the team with which they hope to open their 2018 World Cup campaign.

England plays Nigeria at Wembley on Saturday, a sort of warm-up for Tunisia, the Three Lions’ first opponents in the finals, even though the Super Eagles are from a different part of a vast continent.

Like his counterparts, Gareth Southgate will keep his World Cup cards almost super-glued to his chest, only revealing his hand at the last possible moment. It is probable the XI that lines up against Tunisia has never played together before and the game against Nigeria plus next Thursday’s match against Costa Rica (a dress rehearsal for Panama on June 24) will see a number of fringe players given a chance. The World Cup starting selection will be kept on hold.

Southgate’s 3-4-3 formation, which he has used in the past five matches, seems set in tablets of stone and while Everton’s Jordan Pickford is favorite to start the World Cup in goal it is certain Nick Pope of Burnley will win his first England cap over the coming days.

Liverpool’s uncapped Trent Alexander-Arnold, 19, who had an outstanding Champions League final, should also make his England debut at right wing-back with Kyle Walker, John Stones and Gary Cahill the likely starters in a three-man defense though Harry Maguire will get some game-time before the finals.

While England is on a run of eight matches without defeat and has played some tough friendlies against Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands and Italy, it has scored only four goals in its last six games. Southgate’s team is solid and composed when defending, but lacks creativity in midfield and struggles against opponents who use frustration tactics. Lithuania and Slovenia were beaten by the slenderest of margins, 1-0, in qualifiers and Nigeria, then Tunisia and Panama are likely to park their respective buses.

The match at Wembley promises to be offense versus defense and England needs captain Harry Kane, who scored six goals in the final seven Premier League matches, to continue where he left off for Tottenham. Having missed his country’s last four games. Kane has scored seven goals in his six England starts under Southgate who is keen for the likes of Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli, Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford to take the pressure off the Spurs striker who has become something of a one-man strike force.

Nigeria participated in the African Cup of Nations earlier this year, reaching the final where it was beaten 4-0 by Morocco. Ahmed Musa might be Nigeria’s go-to striker, but the £16.5 million Leicester record signing from CSKA Moscow two years ago failed to make an impression in English football and was loaned back to the Russian club last January.

His Leicester teammate Kelechi Iheanacho has fared better while other familiar faces are Arsenal forward Alex Iwobi, Chelsea wing-back Victor Moses and former Blues midfielder Jon Obi Mikel, the team captain currently playing in China.

England remains a constant work in progress, with successive coaches trying to find the best formation. It has drawn three of its last four matches, failing to score more than once in any of the last six, so even a 2-0 victory would be a step in the right direction.

England has arranged for Japanese referee Hiroyuki Kimura to take charge of next Thursday’s friendly against Costa Rica. There is a good chance one of England’s three group matches will be refereed by an official from Asia and Southgate wants his players to experience a non-European style ahead of the World Cup finals.

Bale’s status uncertain

When Bob Paisley was Liverpool manager during the 1970s and 1980s he said that before signing a player he always checked the Rothmans Yearbook to see how many games he had played, or more specifically missed, in recent seasons.

Reports suggest that Gareth Bale, Real Madrid’s goal-scoring hero in its Champions League final victory over Liverpool, is on Manchester United’s short list. If Jose Mourinho does what Paisley did, he will find that the Wales captain has missed around 90 matches through injury since his transfer from Tottenham in 2013. One Spanish journalist wrote that Bale had cost Real £800,000 per game.

Bale was speaking from a strong platform after his Kiev heroics, saying he wanted to play regularly, though even when fit Zinedine Zidane, who announced his departure on Thursday, often overlooked him. With three successive European crowns Zidane appeared to know what he was doing.

There are two other stumbling blocks for a potential move to Old Trafford. Bale, who has four years remaining on his contract, earns £650,000 a week in Madrid and Real would at least want the £85 million they paid for him.

Also, Mourinho does not have a history of liking wide players, having sold wingers such as Damien Duff, Arjen Robben and Memphis Depay, while Anthony Martial has struggled to hold down a first-team place.

The resignation of Zidane, who is not on Bale’s Christmas card list, and the identity of his successor will obviously have some effect on the Welshman’s future, but statistics indicate Bale would be a high cost and high risk transfer. He may just have to stay with the Champions of Europe.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.