England still playing for places
Southgate gives his players ‘an opportunity to stake a claim’ against Nigeria and Costa Rica.
Gareth Southgate has told his players there are still World Cup places to play for against Nigeria on Saturday.
When the full-time whistle blows at HQ there will be little more than two weeks to go until the Three Lions’ tournament curtain-raiser against Tunisia in Volgograd.
And while Southgate has settled on the bulk of the XI which will start in Russia, there are still big incentives for those who impress against the Super Eagles at Wembley or versus Costa Rica at Elland Road five days later.
“I don’t think these are trial matches in that a bad performance rules someone out but there are opportunities for people to really stake a claim in areas of the pitch where there is huge competition for places,” he said.
The identity of Southgate’s goalkeeper should prove telling, with Jordan Pickford and Jack Butland vying for the number one role ahead of the uncapped Nick Pope.
Pickford has played just twice for the senior side, while Butland is the grizzled veteran of the group with seven appearances.
Given that lack of experience, whoever takes the field at Wembley on Saturday must surely be in pole position to take the gloves for the Group G opener.
“That will become apparent over the next five days,” was Southgate’s opaque response when the goalkeeping position was raised.
“They are inexperienced in terms of senior international games but Pickford and Butland have the perfect path in terms of junior international tournaments and a lot of Premier League football under their belts.”
There is also some jockeying for position behind captain Harry Kane.
Raheem Sterling has done enough, both with Premier League champions Manchester City and in a pair of lively England outings in March, to take one attacking slot meaning Jesse Lingard and Dele
Alli could be scrapping for the other shirt.
And Lingard, who will definitely start against Nigeria, is buoyed rather than bowed by the prospect of representing his country at the highest level.
“At the moment, I don’t feel any pressure. I am enjoying my football and playing freely,” he said.
“As long as we believe in ourselves and the country backs us we will go out and do well. It is your nation and your country and when you get selected, it’s an honour putting on the shirt.”
Fabian Delph can expect a lengthy run-out, having snuck into the final squad despite winning the last of his nine caps back in 2015.
Southgate is keen on the Manchester City midfielder’s versatility, attitude and discipline but needs to see how he fits into the England system. Jordan Henderson’s absence – he and Liverpool
team-mate Trent Alexander-Arnold have been given extra time off following their Champions League heartbreak – creates an obvious gap.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is another who is likely to see action after impressing in his two previous appearances.
In defence Harry Maguire may be treated with kid gloves after sitting out training for two days this week due to a muscular issue, and Phil Jones has left the group to attend the birth of his second child.
That means a possible return for Chelsea skipper Gary Cahill, the most experienced member of the squad who earned a reprieve after being axed in March.
“There is a real competition for places in every position,” said Southgate.
“We need to focus on the 23, not just the starting XI. You know where people are at physically, and people stay in if they’re playing well. If players are in on reputation or name, that breeds a bit of discord.
“When you have a clear rationale, a clear understanding of how you want to play, that makes the decisions easier.”