ENGLAND’s impressive victory over Italy last month may have secured them passage to next summer’s Euros but Gareth Southgate will be determined to nail down top spot in Group C.
That will be confirmed this Friday evening at Wembley.
If that sounds a little too definitive for your tastes, we can go even further, because there is every chance it will be done and dusted by half-time, what with the Three Lions scoring 2+ first-half goals in five of their last eight outings. Against Malta in their corresponding fixture last June, Southgate’s men were three up on 31 minutes.
Ranked 171st in the world – behind Fiji, Cuba and Vanuatu – Malta have conceded 2+ first-half goals in their last three games.
Moreover, the nature of those goals are damning, with an almost comical own-goal costing them at home to Ukraine in their most recent performance, followed soon after by the concession of a penalty that was clumsy in the extreme. Two of Italy’s goals a few days earlier directly resulted from Malta’s inability to play out from the back, with keeper Henry Bonello particularly culpable.
All of which will be music to Harry Kane’s ears, England’s record goal-scorer being a renowned and ruthless minnow-killer.
If that comes across as a slight, it’s not intended, nor is the trope that Kane stad-pads against the weaker nations accurate or fair. He has scored ten and assisted three times in his last ten appearances for his country and this includes goals at Italy’s expense (twice), Senegal, and France in a World Cup quarter-final.
Then there’s his ridiculous prolificacy for Bayern Munich to consider, Kane enacting an immediate blitzkrieg upon the Bundesliga. Seventeen goals in 11 amounts to a goal scored every 56 minutes.
The 30-year-old is a certainty to start at Wembley, with Southgate wanting to get the job done prior to heading to North Macedonia for their group sign-off, and there are others too we can confidently assume will feature.
A back-four of Walker, Maguire, Guehi and Trippier is expected ahead of Pickford in nets. Declan Rice meanwhile is a cert to monitor counters and begin the construction of England’s attacks.
Bukayo Saka is also a near-definite given his numbers and importance for country now, as well as club. The flying winger has been awarded Man of the Match in over a third of his starts for the Gunners this term.
Lastly, Phil Foden would be an unlikely omission with the explosive form he’s presently in. Two key passes per 90 and 2.3 chances created per 90 for Manchester City are decent figures but they still pale to the naked eye test. After seeing his astonishing trajectory plateau for a good while, Foden is back to his bewitching best.
Elsewhere however, it becomes a guessing game, with Southgate’s selections becoming more unpredictable in recent times.
With Jude Bellingham out, will Trent Alexander-Arnold be deployed in midfield as he was to very good effect against Malta last summer? In Ta’ Qali, a 25-yard thunderbolt capped off a display that saw the Liverpool man instrumental throughout.
Conor Gallagher offers up a viable alternative, his endeavour helping to turn Chelsea’s season around. Perhaps Phillips or Henderson will partner Rice, though that feels a little too conservative even for an England coach defined by his conservatism.
What we can be more sure of is that Rico Lewis, Ezri Konsa and Cole Palmer, all drafted in to replace withdrawn players, will be realistically hoping to get some minutes on Monday evening, their brief on Friday to watch on and absorb the experience.
And it’s an experience that should be a straightforward one for the hosts, with scant drama anticipated at the back. The Three Lions have faced just 1.2 shots on target per 90 post-Qatar and though Paul Mbong has a bit about him, expeditions into the final third will be rare for Malta with genuine chances at an absolute premium.
Instead, constant patient probing from Saka and co will open them up and from there, it’s just a matter of what score-line is racked up. To that end, it’s worth noting that their last two encounters finished 4-0. It’s also worth noting that both games combined produced fewer corners than you may think, with Malta not winning any and England just nine.
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