Sam Allardyce’s reign as England manager begins with a trip to Slovakia this weekend, as both teams begin their 2018 World Cup qualification campaign (5pm Sunday on ITV1).
The Three Lions crashed out of this summer’s European Championship in the round of 16, when they suffered a highly embarrassing 2-1 defeat at the hands of Iceland. Allardyce (pictured) was appointed as Roy Hodgson’s successor in July and will be tasked with guiding England to the World Cup in Russia in two years’ time with a minimum of fuss, and it will be interesting to see how he goes about remodelling a side that failed so dismally in France.
West Ham United winger Michail Antonio has been called-up for the first time for the clash with Slovakia, with Joe Hart also included in his the 23-man group despite his recent lack of playing time at club level. Teenage striker Marcus Rashford and midfielder Jack Wilshere were left out after also struggling for meaningful first-team action at Manchester United and Arsenal respectively, but Daniel Sturridge, Chris Smalling and Theo Walcott all made the cut.
Slovakia also reached the last 16 of Euro 2016 before losing 3-0 to Germany, although their tournament showing was far more respectable than that of their upcoming opponents. Jan Kozak remains in charge as the Falcons attempt to reach their second-ever World Cup.
Their debut showing came in South Africa six years ago, when they progressed from a group which contained Italy, Paraguay and New Zealand before being overcome by eventual runners-up the Netherlands in the last 16. Slovakia qualified for that tournament by finishing top of their group, but they will probably be eyeing second place and a spot in the play-offs this time around, with Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta their other competitors in Group F.
These two teams played out a 0-0 draw at the Euros, with England unable to make their territorial dominance count at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in Saint-Etienne. Slovakia sat deep and packed almost every outfield player behind the line of the ball in that encounter, and their strategy will probably be the same when the sides go head-to-head again this weekend.
Napoli attacking midfielder Marek Hamsik is the Slovaks’ key man, with his creativity and invention likely to be essential in the final third of the pitch, while Liverpool centre-back Martin Skrtel, Milan’s energetic midfielder Juraj Kucka and Zenit St Petersburg forward Robert Mak will also be highly important down the spine of the team.
Taking everything into account, it is probably worth backing England to come out on top at the Stadion Antona Malatinskeho. Allardyce’s charges will have to remain patient and ensure they do not panic and lose their composure if they are unable to make the breakthrough early on, but their added quality across the pitch should allow them to begin the qualification campaign with a win.
England did create a number of clear-cut opportunities in the two teams’ aforementioned goalless draw at the European Championship and will be relatively confident of doing the same once again. England will certainly have to demonstrate much more of a clinical edge inside the penalty area.
Slovakia, for their part, will be hoping to pose more of an attacking threat than they did in that clash in France, when Kozak’s side struggled to relieve pressure by turning England back the other way. Even if they are able to do that, the Three Lions should have too much for the hosts in Trnava, although Sunday’s game could still be a tight and closely-fought affair.
Our Slovakia v England Preview’s Betting Tips’ Verdict
England can be backed at 21/20 (SkyBet) to win this match, with Slovakia longest at 31/10 (BetVictor) and the draw at 23/10 (Betfair). This match preview concludes that a 1-0 England victory may be the best bet in the correct score market, while under 1.5 goals to be scored in total is a slightly risky but feasible alternative.