With qualification for Euro 2020 now sealed, England have only pride and honour to play for when they travel to Pristina to take on Kosovo on Sunday (5pm live on ITV).
England confirmed their place at the tournament with a 7-0 thrashing of Montenegro at Wembley on Thursday. The occasion of the country’s 1000th international fixture, 147 years after the first, was celebrated in fine style.
Gareth Southgate’s side were three goals up within 25 minutes, five to the good by half time and then added a couple more after the interval to round things off. Harry Kane scored a first-half hat trick, while the rest of the goals were evenly distributed between Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, Marcus Rashford, Tammy Abraham and a Montenegro own goal.
In truth, it was all rather too easy for England, who sliced through the Montenegro defence almost at will. It would, though, be remiss not to mention the performance of Ben Chilwell. The Leicester left back provided the assists for all of the first three goals and also slipped a nice pass through to Jadon Sancho to set up Abraham’s first international goal.
It wasn’t the first time England’s attacking quality had blown away their opponents during this qualifying process. They carry a 4.71-goal average into their final fixture on Sunday. The front three set up of Kane flanked by two rapid wide forwards (on Thursday, Sancho and Rashford) has proved a formula that few opponents have been able to deal with.
Southgate feels that improvements will have to made in defence if they are to challenge seriously at Euro 2020. “We have to get both ends of the pitch right,” he said after the Montenegro win. “We conceded a couple of chances we shouldn’t. There is still work to do without the ball but we are improving.”
Not that it has proved much of an impediment during the qualification process. England’s superior head-to-head record against the Czech Republic means that they will top Group A regardless of results on the final match day. Their 18-point haul has them three clear of the Czechs in second, who were themselves able to confirm automatic qualification with a 2-1 win at home to Kosovo on Thursday.
With 70 minutes on the clock, Kosovo were solidly placed to compete for that second direct qualification spot themselves. They led 1-0 through Atdhe Nuhiu’s 50th-minute strike, and would have leapfrogged the Czech Republic if they could have held on. In the next 10 minutes, their hosts scored twice to reverse the scoreline and end Kosovo’s hopes.
All is not yet lost. Kosovo’s performance during the 2018-19 UEFA Nations League will give them a second chance at qualifying through the playoffs. Belarus and Georgia will also be involved alongside a yet to be decided fourth team in a straight knockout competition.
There will be a fair degree of confidence within the squad of successfully traversing that hurdle given their group stage performances. After their disastrous qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup (one draw, nine defeats), expectations were not especially high in the Kosovo camp, but they have competed gamely, accumulating 11 points from seven matches and defeating Bulgaria away and Czech Republic and Montenegro at home.
Bernard Challandes’ side also weren’t easy opponents for England in the first fixture between the teams. They took a first-minute lead, and even though England then rallied to lead 5-1 at the interval, Kosovo scored twice more early in the second half to keep some pressure on their hosts.
Some of that attacking threat will, though, be lost on Sunday due to the absence through injury of Vedat Muriqi, the Fenerbache forward who has notched four goals and two assists during the qualification process. There may also be a slight lessening of effort with nothing now on the line for them.
In those circumstances, the greater quality within the England squad is likely to shine through, especially with the Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling coming back into the team after serving a one-match internal suspension following a canteen altercation with Joe Gomez. Sterling will be keen to do his talking on the pitch, and after eight goals in six matches during the campaign, can be fancied to add to his tally on Sunday.
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