August 12, 2022

Was Grealish’s explosive 18-minute cameo against Germany enough to earn him a start against Italy at Molineux?

England’s final World Cup auditions may be behind closed doors when they face Italy at Molineux on Saturday, but the stage is huge for every member of Gareth Southgate’s squad with eyes riveted on Qatar in November.

The gallery will hold just 3,000 spectators, mostly schoolchildren, as part of the Football Association’s sanction for crowd disturbance during the Euro 2020 final against Italy at Wembley last July.

And while the atmosphere at Wolverhampton will be surreal, the wider significance of this Nations League game will not be lost on Southgate or any of his team-mates, even though the manager himself has admitted that the fact that England have to play in a largely empty stadium is “an embarrassment”.

The penalty shootout loss in England’s first grand final since winning the 1966 World Cup left a sour aftertaste, but now many players are hoping this Nations League tie can pave the way for the next showpiece in November.

Southgate and his team will be in high spirits after England captain Harry Kane’s 50th goal gave them a point in a 1-1 draw in Germany on Tuesday, following the mediocre defeat in Hungary last weekend.

He is working on formations and finding his best team to start the World Cup opener against Iran in November.

The late start to the World Cup also changes the focus on selection, with Premier League form, as well as fitness, in the early months of next season now a factor.

Southgate have played a 4-2-3-1 system in Germany, a variation of their trusted three-man central defense with full-backs employed so often in the past. This flexibility with form will also create opportunities for the staff, making the meeting with Italy and the return with Hungary, this time at sold-out Molineux on Tuesday, vital.

As England prepare to face the team that left heartbroken last summer, some players in the current squad are hoping to build on good impressions, while others are still hoping to make an impact.

Manchester City’s Jack Grealish will fall into the first category after an explosive 18-minute appearance in Munich where he tormented Germany. He will want to do the same against Italy.

Grealish initially appeared to be struggling to earn Southgate’s trust and his 22 England caps have been split evenly between starts and appearances as a substitute. He scored one goal, with six assists.

He looked like a confident player against Germany, even admitting he sometimes felt he played with more freedom with England than with Manchester City.

Southgate said: “He had a fantastic impact against Germany. He’s a player we love to work with. He’s got a great mentality, a great character. He’s a really good guy to have around the group. He has this joy when he has a football at his feet.”

Kane’s desire to play every game as he closes in on Wayne Rooney’s record 53 international goals may not be fully satisfied in the remaining two matches of this break, but with four games to go before the opener in Qatar, he could still go down in history. pounds as he leads the Southgate side for another trophy tilt.

Tammy Abraham will be desperate to seize his chance and will certainly know Italy well after scoring 27 goals in a hugely successful debut season under Jose Mourinho in Rome, winning the Europa Conference League.

Southgate will have a lot of his side fixed in his mind, but the difference this time around is that the ‘bolters’ – the stragglers who claim their right – have more time to make an impression.

If the World Cup was in its normal schedule, these matches would be part of the final preparation. Now, these are full-fledged competitive encounters, with form and fitness also taken into account over a longer period of time.

Southgate have decisions to make in terms of form and players to match which means a lot of traveling on these games for many while September’s Nations League fixtures against Italy in Milan and at home against Italy Germany provide the perfect platform for final tuning.

West Ham’s Jarrod Bowen will rejoice in his arrival on the English scene as one of the few successes in Budapest and then as an influence, even if he only had 10 minutes, in Munich.

Southgate have their trusted lieutenants such as Captain Kane, Harry Maguire and John Stones in defence, with goalkeeper Jordan Pickford the undisputed number one.

He returned to his Euros central midfielder of Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice in Germany while Raheem Sterling also returned.

He won’t spill any secrets, but Southgate’s plans for the World Cup have been in the making for a long time. The England manager will have a clear direction in mind going into the challenge in Qatar in November, hoping very firmly that the first weeks of the Premier League season will be injury-free.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t time for someone to play their way into – or out of – their strategy, which means the Italy encounter carries significant weight.

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