Victory on Friday against Albania at Wembley and England could seal their place at next year’s World Cup if Poland drop points against Hungary. If Poland and England win, a point against San Marino seals England’s spot in Qatar. It’s that simple.
Gareth Southgate’s men are strong favourites and have home advantage but Albania are no pushovers – they are third in England’s qualifying group and still have slim hopes of reaching the play-offs themselves.
They will be heartened further by a number of injury issues in the England squad. Marcus Rashford, Declan Rice, James Ward-Prowse, Luke Shaw and Mason Mount are all missing and furthermore, stars like Jack Grealish, Harry Maguire and captain Harry Kane are struggling for top form.
So should Southgate form a Plan B to get England to the World Cup, and what will it look like? Sportsmail makes an assessment.
Gareth Southgate has some selection decisions to make with England facing Albania
In one area, left-back, a change is coming. Luke Shaw got concussed in Manchester United’s defeat against City so misses Albania. Ben Chilwell looks to be the natural replacement – he has had a fabulous start to the season with Chelsea and has scored four goals so far, including one for England in the 5-0 win over Andorra. His form is in stark contrast to Shaw, who has struggled to recapture the form seen at Euro 2020.
Right-back has always been a tough one for Southgate. Kyle Walker’s pace is a huge asset to England’s defence, while Reece James has also flourished at Chelsea so far this season – he’s scored four times for the Blues this season as well. That tally makes him Southgate’s top scorer so far at club level this season, alongside Smith-Rowe.
And then there’s the question of Trent Alexander-Arnold. One moot point of Southgate’s rein as England boss is his inability to bring the best out of the Liverpool full-back on the international scene. Liverpool fans won’t mind him missing out on England matches and recharging the batteries for the club season, but if Southgate found a way to bring the best out of Alexander-Arnold it could and an all-new dimension to the England fold.
For all the competition at right-back it seems strange that Alexander-Arnold, a Premier League and Champions League winner who only turned 23 in October, only has 14 caps to his name.
Trent Alexander-Arnold has struggled to find his best form on the international stage
Chelsea right-back Reece James is the top scorer in the England squad with four goals
TIME TO TALK ABOUT HARRY MAGUIRE
Like his United team-mate Shaw, Harry Maguire has so far failed to recapture his form at the Euros. In part, it seems Maguire rushed back from injury at United earlier in the campaign and is still making his way back to full fitness.
There is a decision for Southgate to make there – does he back Maguire and go full-strength against Albania to get the job done? Or does he rotate, and maybe partner John Stones with Tyrone Mings?
Based on form alone, Maguire’s position in the setup should be precarious. But Southgate has shown an extra degree of loyalty to his most trusted lieutenants and it would be a surprise if he is left out against Albania.
Harry Maguire has struggled to find his best form so far during the 2021-22 season
HENDERSON IN FOR RICE
Another two of Southgate’s most trusted are Kalvin Phillips and Jordan Henderson. Leeds midfielder Phillips cemented his place in the England fold with a magnificent Euro 2020, forging a midfield partnership with Declan Rice at West Ham. Meanwhile, Henderson’s experience and professionalism make him an extremely valued member of the setup in Southgate’s eyes.
It means that with Rice out of the international squad this time due to flu and James Ward-Prowse also absent, Henderson is a shoo-in to start on Friday and win his 68th England cap. It is a more than solid replacement, and Southgate’s easiest selection decision.
Gareth Southgate has an easy decision in starting Jordan Henderson in England’s midfield
COULD CAPTAIN KANE GET DROPPED?
Harry Kane is another who has struggled for his best form so far in the 2021-22 season and in truth, his dip probably extends a bit further beyond that considering it took him a while to get going at the Euros.
He toiled in Antonio Conte’s first game in charge of Tottenham – a 0-0 draw against Everton – and despite scoring 10 goals so far in the campaign, he is goalless in his last five for Spurs, which is an uncharacteristic drought.
It would still be a shock for Southgate to drop his captain for the game that could clinch England’s place at a World Cup, but the murmurings around Kane’s position in the starting line-up are as loud as they have ever been.
England captain Harry Kane has been enduring a difficult run of form in recent months
LET SMITH-ROWE OFF THE LEASH
Emile Smith-Rowe of Arsenal was a surprise omission from the England squad, before subsequent withdrawals paved the way for him to eventually be included.
The 21-year-old has four goals to his name already for Arsenal this season and looks in excellent form. He has outperformed two competitors for his place in the England squad so far this season in City duo Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling but again, experience counts for a lot in Southgate’s eyes.
But Smith-Rowe could be the option off the bench that Grealish seemed to be for England at the Euros. With a World Cup on the horizon, Smith-Rowe has broken through into the setup at an opportune moment.
Emile Smith-Rowe is an exciting addition to the England ranks for the upcoming matches