Gareth Southgate’s tenure as England’s interim manager begins with a World Cup qualifier against Malta at Wembley Stadium this weekend (5pm Saturday on ITV1).
Sam Allardyce was appointed as Roy Hodgson’s successor following the European Championship in the summer but left his post by mutual consent last week due to allegations made by the Daily Telegraph.
Southgate (pictured), who is the current favourite to get the job on a permanent basis, therefore finds himself at the helm for the Three Lions’ second fixture in their bid to reach the competition in Russia in two years’ time.
There is plenty of work still to be done following a truly embarrassing exit from the Euros at the hands of Iceland in June. That 2-1 loss was arguably English football’s nadir in modern times. Some convincing performances and results against strong opposition will be needed before the public becomes open to considering England contenders to win a major international tournament again.
A narrow 1-0 victory over Slovakia, secured thanks to Adam Lallana’s strike in second-half stoppage time, in September did not do much to help in that regard. It does at least mean Southgate heads into this match looking for England’s second, rather than first, triumph of the campaign.
Malta, unsurprisingly, did not qualify for the Euros in the summer and will simply be focusing on picking up as many points as they can over the next 12 months. They did not get off to best of starts, though, losing 5-1 at home to Scotland a month ago, and will not hold many hopes of picking up anything against England despite the Three Lions’ struggles of late. Finishing anywhere but last in Group F would probably be considered an achievement worthy of celebration by the Maltese. There really can be no excuse if England somehow fail to pick up maximum points in front of their own supporters this weekend.
Southgate’s 23-man squad includes the usual suspects such as captain Wayne Rooney, Joe Hart, Gary Cahill, Daniel Sturridge and Chris Smalling, although Harry Kane, Lallana and Raheem Sterling have been ruled out through injury. Crystal Palace winger Andros Townsend has been recalled due to the latter’s absence. Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford has been brought back into the group as part of the pool of strikers and his Red Devils team-mate Jesse Lingard earns his first call up to the senior side.
The biggest surprise was the inclusion of right-back Glen Johnson, who is now 32 years old and has not been capped by his country since the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but the Stoke City man has since been forced to pull out of the squad after picking up an injury. The ex-Chelsea and Liverpool defender has been replaced by Burnley’s Michael Keane.
Malta’s group of players features only two players who ply their trade overseas. Zach Muscat is a right-back who represents Arezzo in the third tier of Italian football and Andre Schembri is an attacking midfielder who plays for Boavista in the top flight of the Portuguese game.
The rest of manager Pietro Ghedin’s selections are based on the island, although captain, record goalscorer and third highest appearance-maker Michael Mifsud – who incidentally stands at just 5ft 4in – did spend time overseas with Coventry City, Barnsley and Kaiserslautern earlier in his career.
Our Preview’s England v Malta Betting Tips
England are 1/50 with the bookies to win this match and 20/1 in the World Cup 2018 betting odds. The 5000/1 about Malta being outright winner seems miserly. So the question to ask from a betting perspective is not so much ‘who will win this game?’ as ‘by what margin will it be won?’ Our preview’s verdict is that a wager on a 5-0 win is probably not excessive, especially given that Scotland scored five times against the Maltese away from home. So that particular scoreline could be worth backing, with Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Dele Alli a sensible betting tip to find the back of the net first.