Last updated April 2nd, 2021
England have a soft opening to a triple-header of World Cup qualifiers this international break with a match against minnows San Marino at Wembley (8.45pm Thursday; TV: Live on ITV).
After a four-month break, the international calendar resumes with the beginning of the qualification process for Qatar 2022. England are the heavily odds-on favourites to win Group I, which also features Poland, Hungary, Albania, Andorra and San Marino.
England made short work of qualifying for the last World Cup, topping their group a full eight points clear of the second-placed team without losing a single match. In fact, it is necessary to go back to 2009, to the qualification process for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, to find the last time they lost a World Cup qualifier.
In contrast, San Marino lost all 10 of their qualifying matches for Russia 2018, scoring twice and conceding 51 times, including 8-0 losses to both Germany and Norway. They have never won a World Cup qualifier in 66 attempts, and the last time they even drew one was way back in 2001, away to Latvia. Forty three consecutive defeats have followed.
Aside from that famous early slip up at the start of the 1994 World Cup qualifier between the pair of them, England have also found the going very easy against San Marino. That is, in fact, the only goal they have ever conceded against them. In total, they have fired off 37 goals to one in claiming victory in each and every one of their six previous encounters.
There is, then, little for coach Gareth Southgate to worry about ahead of Thursday’s match. Sunday’s opponents Albania and particularly a Poland side who are probably the second strongest team in the group, and whom England host next Wednesday, will offer tougher challenges. This could prove to be a match for rotation and experimentation.
Southgate’s 26-man squad for this international break includes two potential debutants in Aston Villa striker Ollie Watkins – not previously called up by England at any age group – and West Bromwich Albion goalkeeper Sam Johnstone. There are three returnees: Jesse Lingard, John Stones and Luke Shaw, the latter of whom was last called up in September 2018.
The Liverpool pair of Jordan Henderson (injured) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (unselected) join Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish and Jordan Pickford as the main absentees from a group that features a good mix of youth and experience across almost all lines of the team.
England didn’t show their best in their Nations League group at the back end of last year, losing against Belgium and losing and drawing against Denmark to finish third in the group.
It is questionable how much can really be read into that given the lack of rest that many players have had after the short gap between seasons and the varied motivation for what is essentially a glorified friendly competition, at least for the continent’s biggest nations. Southgate will nevertheless be keen to get the World Cup qualifiers underway with, at the very least, a couple of wins and a draw.
There is little to suggest that San Marino will be any more prepared to give England a proper game of it on Thursday than they have been in previous matches between the sides. Neither should they really be expected to, given that their squad is entirely made up of players from the domestic competition and the Italian lower league.
Franco Varrella’s side did claim two draws in their own Nations League group, but those were against fellow minnows Liechtenstein and Gibraltar rather than a side like England. Both finished 0-0. San Marino failed to score to any of their six matches in that tournament.
The problem for punters is how to find betting value in a match with such an obvious disparity in quality between the two teams. It is necessary to go beyond England -7 goals to get odds above evens on the Asian Handicap market, which given they have only once beaten San Marino by more than seven goals across their six previous meetings seems a little tight for comfort.
In the circumstances, perhaps backing England to come out of the gates and get things comfortably wrapped up before the interval is the way to go. They should get the goals, ease off and conserve their energy for the more challenging matches to come. So our England vs San Marino betting tip for this preview is:
- Bet on the 1st half to be the highest scoring half at 15/8.
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