In a fine example of great planning England have friendly internationals during the break against two teams who have not qualified for the World Cup. Most non-competitive matches have little relevance to tournaments but England’s fixtures against Holland and Italy will tell us even less. In three months the futility of playing nations who have not qualified will pale into insignificance if England withdraw from the tournament in Russia. Two wins would be pleasing but largely irrelevant.
The decision to take the World Cup to Russia was debatable on sporting grounds. A host nation should have a genuine chance of winning the World Cup and Russia do not have the side to progress to the latter stages of the tournament. Home advantage can only take a team so far and reaching the quarter-finals could be the best that can be expected for this year’s hosts. England have a relatively easy group but that has often been the case in the past and the team underperforms.
England’s first friendly during the international break is away to Holland. The country have reached three World Cup finals without winning one and that is a record. The Netherlands that played total football in 1974 and 1978 lost in both finals to the hosts, West Germany and Argentina. Holland were third four years ago in Brazil but some key players are now past their best. Robin van Persie has retired and Arjen Robben is in the latter stages of his career.
One of Gareth Southgate’s major decisions over the next three months is the name of his first choice goalkeeper. Joe Hart is a player in decline and part of the collateral damage of the farce that is West Ham. Bookmakers give him an even chance of making the squad for the World Cup but his confidence seems to have gone. Hart made a number of errors at Euro 2016. In Jordan Pickford of Everton the manager has a ready made successor but he has had a difficult season.
Southgate has selected three players for the squad for these two friendlies who have not been called up before. Nick Pope, James Tarkowski and Alfie Mawson are in the squad but they must be long shots to be on the plane to Russia. There seems little point in calling up three inexperienced players without giving them a chance. You would expect the strongest 11 to start in the Holland match before the fringe players are given a chance against Italy at Wembley on Tuesday.
Italy have qualified for the last 15 World Cups and are four-time world champions. It was a huge shock that they lost to Sweden over the two legs in the playoffs. In the second match at home Italy had plenty of the ball but could not score the crucial goal. In fact they created very few clear cut chances and the writing was on the wall well before the end of the match. Some of Italy’s stalwarts have retired and Southgate may throw in some of the young players. In the context of the World Cup this is yet another meaningless friendly that has got in the way of the Premier League.
Motivation will be key in these matches but the players representing Holland and Italy are not competing for World Cup places. England’s squad should be more hungry and that means two wins are on the cards but they will be forgotten when it matters most in Russia, pending England’s participation.