Before the only partially more serious business of their respective UEFA Nations League fixtures, England and Wales meet in an international friendly at Wembley on Thursday (8pm, live on ITV).
England got back into international action last month with a win and a draw in the first two fixtures of their Nations League group. A last-minute penalty from Raheem Sterling saw them to a 1-0 victory over Iceland and they then played out a dour 0-0 draw with Denmark.
They were a pair of bland performances but much more could hardly be expected given that the majority of the players were still in the midst of pre-season preparations at their clubs. They were never going to be firing on all cylinders due to the shortened gap between seasons. Gareth Southgate had to make do with the players and fitness levels available to him.
Quite why these internationals even need to be played given the current circumstances of the world is a debate for another time. Here we are a month later, with England facing three matches in six days, a schedule they will repeat next month as the group stage of the Nations League comes to a close.
England trail Belgium by two points at the top of their group, and much of their focus will be on the meeting between the two sides on Sunday. Southgate may well use the Wales game as an opportunity to experiment with some of the new options he has brought into his squad for this month’s fixtures.
There are five potential debutants amongst the 30-man group. Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin has been rewarded for his excellent goalscoring start to the new season, while Arsenal’s Bukayo Sako, Chelsea’s Reece James and Leicester’s Harvey Barnes have also been called up. Manchester United reserve goalkeeper Dean Henderson has been in previous squads but is yet to get onto the pitch for his first cap.
They join three players who made their debuts in last month’s fixtures. Jack Grealish was one of those and may hope for a first start after an impressive opening to the league campaign at Aston Villa, including two goals and a hat-trick of assists in their surprising 7-2 win over champions Liverpool on Sunday.
It is, in general, a young squad with only four outfield players over the age of 27. It is nowhere near as young as that of the Wales team who travel to Wembley on the back of an eight-match unbeaten run that included 1-0 victories over Finland and Bulgaria last month that currently have them top of their Nations League group.
Ryan Giggs’ 27-man squad includes a few experienced heads, but also 16 players under the age of 23, including potential debutants Rhys Norrington-Davies of Luton Town and Brennan Johnson of Lincoln City. It was 19-year-old Neco Williams of Liverpool who scored the injury time winner against Bulgaria.
Giggs would have liked to call upon 31-year-old forward Gareth Bale, newly signed by Tottenham Hotspur, for this match and the Nations League fixtures against the Republic of Ireland and Bulgaria that follow it. The country’s all-time top goalscorer was unable to recover from the knee injury he picked up on international duty last month in time to be available.
Wales are the relatively clear underdogs on Thursday. This is the first time since 2016 that the two home nations have squared off. England were the winners on that occasion and have had the upper hand over Wales since their first encounter way back in 1879, winning 67 of the 102 meetings, including all five this millennium.
It is hard to know just how seriously the two teams will treat this fixture given they each still have two, on paper at least, competitive matches to follow it. Their geographical proximity adds a dose of rivalry to the encounter that may produce stronger than expected line-ups but it wouldn’t be at all surprising if both teams trialled new configurations.
Even in those circumstances, England should have the upper hand. Their squad has more depth to it, with all 30 footballers playing top-flight football in comparison to 14 of the 27 in the Wales squad, and they should have the necessary quality to overcome their opponents even if the rhythm of the match is disrupted by substitutions as time rolls on.
Taking England with a two-goal Asian handicap seems to strike the best balance between value and likelihood. So the betting tip for JustBookies’ England vs Wales preview is:
- Bet on England -2 goals on the Asian Handicap @ 8/5 (see odds table below for the bookmaker to use).
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