Gareth Southgate names his England squad on Thursday afternoon – the last one before he must decide which players to take to the World Cup in Qatar.
The upcoming UEFA Nations League double-header against Italy in Milan next Friday and Germany at Wembley the following Monday are significant for various reasons.
Firstly, England could suffer the ignominy of relegation into League B of the competition if they don’t get some positive results in these final two games of the group.
Gareth Southgate names his final England squad before the World Cup on Thursday with the Three Lions set to play Italy and Germany in the UEFA Nations League
England could be relegated from League A and were dreadful against Hungary back in June
But more importantly, this squad will offer up plenty of clues as to who will be making the plane to the Middle-East in late November.
These two games are the final chance for Southgate to fine tune his team before the World Cup opener against Iran in Al Rayyan on November 21.
We examine the big decisions the Three Lions boss will make as he names his latest squad.
England at risk of relegation
England have work to do if they are to avoid relegation from League A of the Nations League.
They have so far lost home and away to Hungary and drawn with both Italy and Germany, leaving them bottom of Group A3, three points adrift of Italy.
The bottom placed nation drops into League B for the next edition.
Southgate’s side play Italy in Milan next Friday and then Germany at Wembley the following Monday and realistically need four points or more to stay up.
Should Rashford be risked?
Marcus Rashford deserves to be in this England squad. The Manchester United striker looks revitalised this season and is starting to return to some of his best form following a troubled 2021-22 campaign.
He has scored three goals and contributed two assists in six games so far this season, with new United manager Erik Ten Hag restoring him to the centre forward role he clearly favours.
But Rashford is struggling with a muscle injury, which has thrown his return to the England squad – for the first time since last year – into jeopardy.
Marcus Rashford is enjoying his club football again but has picked up a muscle injury
He will undergo a late fitness test but it’s likely he will be ruled out of these two games. He did not travel to Moldova with United as they prepare to play Sheriff in the Europa League on Thursday night.
However, if Rashford continues his fine start to the season and continues his scoring form, he should absolutely be in the World Cup squad.
Southgate will not hold a press conference on Thursday out of respect to the Queen but at some point during the build-up to the games he should give his backing to Rashford.
Rashford missed the crucial penalty in the Euro 2020 final last year and hasn’t featured for England since amid struggles with his club form
Is it time to bring back Sancho?
Jadon Sancho also lost his England place amid the turmoil at United last season. He hasn’t featured for the national team since last October’s World Cup qualifier against Andorra and wasn’t picked for the last three squads.
But he too has been given a fresh lease of life under Ten Hag, scoring for United in their wins over Liverpool and Leicester, while providing the kind of attacking threat expected of him after that £73million move from Dortmund.
This feels like a crucial moment in Sancho’s international career. If Southgate doesn’t select him for this squad, his World Cup chances are probably over unless he embarks on a sensational run of form in the meantime.
Jadon Sancho has a fresh lease of life under Erik ten Hag – but will he get an England recall?
Sancho last played for England in the World Cup qualifier in Andorra last October
That’s not really through any fault of his own – England are blessed with plenty of excellent wide attackers, such as Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish, plus Rashford of course.
Sancho has been a regular in the England squad for some time without starting every single game and it’s hard to nail down a spot with such intense competition. It feels make or break now.
Does Southgate remain loyal to Maguire and Shaw?
While the Man United attackers have given Southgate a pleasant dilemma, their defenders are a cause for concern.
Ten Hag dropped both Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw following that calamitous 4-0 defeat to Brentford and they have since been unable to reclaim their places with Lisandro Martinez and Tyrell Malacia favoured.
From Southgate’s point of view, both players have never let England down and he has proved himself – arguably a little too – loyal to certain key lieutenants in his side.
Defenders Luke Shaw (left) and Harry Maguire aren’t playing for Manchester United
Maguire is likely to be in the latest squad and also be at the World Cup whatever happens but Shaw is sweating on his place with Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell his strongest competition.
Mind you, Chilwell isn’t playing as regularly as he’d like for Chelsea with Marc Cucurella favoured more often than not in recent weeks.
England don’t have a surplus of left-backs – with Southgate playing Kieran Trippier there at times, or going with a wing-back – so there should really be room for both Shaw and Chilwell in November.
The pair have long been trusted members of the England side under Gareth Southgate
Time for Dier to return?
Eric Dier was a central part of England’s defence or midfield during the early years of Southgate’s tenure but a loss of form at Tottenham resulted in him losing his place.
Dier hasn’t actually pulled on an England shirt since the Nations League win over Iceland in November 2020 and hasn’t been called up since March 2021.
But this could be the ideal time for him to return. He’s started the season brightly under Antonio Conte at Spurs and offers versatility as he can play centre-half in a two or a three, or as a defensive midfielder if needed.
With Maguire’s form uncertain and both Kyle Walker and John Stones struggling with minor injuries, Dier is highly likely to return for this squad.
Eric Dier has enjoyed a strong start to the season at Tottenham and could get an England recall
Southgate admitted when he named his squad for the four games in June that Dier was close to a recall but said he wanted to observe younger options instead.
If he gives a good account of himself in the games against Italy and Germany, when England’s back line will be tested, he has a strong claim to be on the plane to Qatar.
Should England unleash Bellingham?
Jude Bellingham reminded Southgate of his class by scoring for Borussia Dortmund against Man City on Wednesday night
We all know that 19-year-old Jude Bellingham is England’s future – but has the time finally come for Southgate to make him a first choice in his midfield?
For a while now, the England boss has favoured two holding players, usually Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice, with the theory being this not only shields the defence well but allows the wing-backs to push forward.
It worked well at Euro 2020, for example, but there have been occasions when England have lacked thrust pushing forward from those areas or lacked someone to link defence and attack.
The dynamic Bellingham is certainly the best option to provide this. His passing vision, movement and tenacity are excellent and he issued a timely reminder to Southgate with his header against Man City on Wednesday night.
When Bellingham came on for the injured Phillips in England’s 1-1 draw with Germany back in June, it might have been a passing of the baton.
But Bellingham was benched for the next game against Italy and then struggled in the humiliating 4-0 defeat to Hungary at Molineux.
With England urgently needing to shed some of their caution to avoid relegation from the elite league, this could be the time to bring him into the midfield as a World Cup audition.
Bellingham came on during England’s draw with Germany in Munich but isn’t a regular yet
Who is Kane’s back-up?
The whole nation will be praying that Harry Kane, who has started the season well for Spurs, is fit and firing for the World Cup.
But should the nightmare scenario unfold and he picks up an injury, there is effectively a position vacant for the role of England’s back-up striker.
Rashford is one possibility, of course, now he has returned to centre forward play at Old Trafford but the likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Ollie Watkins have faded from the picture.
Patrick Bamford and Callum Wilson are out, so Southgate is likely to select Roma’s Tammy Abraham again.
Tammy Abraham scores for Roma in their Serie A match against Empoli earlier this week
When the England manager went to watch Abraham in person against Udinese earlier this month, Roma were thrashed 4-0 and the striker was forced off with a shoulder strain.
But he returned for Roma’s last game against Empoli and scored for the second time this season.
Calls are growing for Brentford’s Ivan Toney to be given an opportunity to impress. He is enjoying a fine season, with five goals so far including a hat-trick in the Bees’ last game against Leeds.
England will need a reliable back-up striker for Kane at the World Cup, even if the captain is fit, so Toney should be given a chance to show what he can do.
Brentford’s in-form striker Ivan Toney is making a strong case for an England call-up