Victory should be a given when England take on Malta on Friday (19:45 BST, live on ITV).
Gareth Southgate’s side currently top World Cup qualification Group F, with 14 points from a record of four wins and two draws. But they only have a two-point lead over Slovakia, who they host at Wembley next Monday, in second, so goal difference could yet prove crucial.
In that context, Malta are welcome opponents. They sit bottom of the group having lost all six of their qualifiers to date, scoring twice and conceding 15 times. They are not the hopeless minnows that populate the lower reaches of some the other groups but a concession rate of 2.5 goals per match gives England the chance to add two or three goals to their record.
The Slovakia fixture is clearly the tougher of the two matches England will take part in during this international break and it is therefore likely that Southgate will save a few of his top performers for that encounter. But he will nevertheless be wary of the need to give his side enough firepower to overcome their hosts in the Ta’Qali National Stadium.
One option he had hoped to call on for these fixtures was Wayne Rooney. The 31-year-old has made a good start to life back at his first club Everton, and Southgate was keen to bring him back into the fold. But England’s all-time top scorer instead elected to announce his retirement from international football following 53 goals in 119 appearances for his country.
It says much for the relative inexperience within the squad that in Rooney’s absence it is fellow veteran Jermain Defoe who has scored the most international goals, with 20 strikes in 57 caps. He may get a chance to add to that tally on Friday given that Harry Kane, who has endured his usual dry August at club level with Tottenham Hotspur but who has scored three in his last two appearances for England, is likely to be rested ahead of the Slovakia match.
Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, Jaime Vardy and Marcus Rashford will also be hoping for the opportunity to add to their totals at international level by getting a runout in Malta.
Elsewhere in the team, there is an interesting story developing in terms of competition between the sticks. Joe Hart has pretty much been England’s undisputed first-choice goalkeeper since 2010 but patchy form on loan at Torino last season and questionable keeping in the 2-2 draw with Scotland in England’s last qualifier have put that status in doubt. Jack Butland is pushing hard to replace him and his chance may be soon in coming.
Leicester City defender Harry Maguire and Watford midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah are the two new faces in a squad that again has a youthful look to it, with only three outfield players over the age of 28 and eight players with less than 10 caps to their name. There is a certain degree of promise there, although optimism usually fades once England come across higher-quality opponents, as they did in a 3-2 friendly loss to France in June.
That will not be a concern on Friday. Malta’s last success in a competitive international fixture came in a 1-0 win away to Armenia in 2013, although they did pull off a surprise victory against Ukraine in a friendly a couple of months back. Overall, they have lost 14 and drawn two of their last 16 competitive fixtures, taking in the last European Championship qualifiers and the current World Cup qualifying campaign.
They are not, however, the punching bag that they once were. Those 14 defeats included just two in which they lost by more than two goals. While they still lack a goal threat, Italian coach Pietro Ghedin does at least have them relatively well-drilled defensively.
England took a two-goal lead into the break when the sides met at Wembley earlier in the qualifiers but were unable to add to it thereafter. While they will hope to improve on that this time around, Malta have shown enough during the qualifiers to date to suggest they are capable of at least partially frustrating their visitors and securing a respectable scoreline.
Our Preview’s Malta vs England Betting Tips Verdict
Here are our picks for those betting with one of the top rated bookmakers:
- Bet on Malta +2.5 on an Asian Handicap @ best odds of 4/3 with Unibet.
- Back the 2nd half to be the highest scoring half @ 20/21 with Bet365.
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