After a long and arduous campaign, England are finally within touching distance of the World Cup. A 4-0 victory over the Maltese at the weekend leaves them two points ahead of tonight’s opposition in Group F and a victory will stand them in good stead as we head into the final two games of the campaign.
Whilst a victory won’t secure qualification tonight, it will put England five points ahead of Slovakia in second, their closest rivals, meaning the Three Lions will need just two points from their subsequent two games.
The Slovaks are a tough opponent, as we know from their hard-fought 0-0 draw against the English at last summer’s European Championships, and won’t roll over for an easy win. In the last game between the two nations, a slender 1-0 English victory in Bratislava, it was only a last-gasp Adam Lallana goal that saved then boss Sam Allardyce’s blushes.
They’re coming with fire in their belly to upset the odds against a lacklustre England and put them in a good position to reach their second World Cup, their first since 2010.
Last Time Out
Malta 0-4 England (2018 World Cup Qualifier)
Despite the 4-0 scoreline, England made hard work of their qualifier against Malta over the weekend and it was only a late three-goal flurry that added to Harry Kane’s 53rd minute opener.
Gareth Southgate’s side struggled to breakdown the Maltese and their resilience and physicality in defence proved troublesome before Tottenham striker Kane broke the deadlock with a calm finish, combining with club teammate Dele Alli.
It was only as Malta tired that England exerted their authority over the game and Ryan Bertrand, filling in for the injured Danny Rose, sealed the three points with a long-range effort in the 85th minute.
We were barely a day out of August before Kane broke his duck for the season and he looked confident in front of goal against the Maltese, adding to his tally in the second minute of stoppage time from Marcus Rashford’s delivery, taking his national record to 10 goals in 20 games. The striker also assisted Danny Welbeck for England’s third.
Slovakia 1-0 Slovenia (2018 World Cup Qualifier)
Slovakia ensured they retained their grip on second spot in Group F, keeping alive their hopes of reaching only their second World Cup in their history, with a slender 1-0 victory over Slovenia. The win took them four points clear of Scotland and Slovenia.
The Slovaks completely dominated the game, with 67% possession and 15 attempts at goal, but Slovenia held firm for the best part of 90 minutes until an 81st minute own goal broke the deadlock and proved decisive.
After Marek Hamsik’s initial shot hit the woodwork, chaos ensued and Adam Nemec was the first to the loose ball, with his tapped-in effort coming off of Slovenia’s Miha Mevlja to roll over the line.
Jordan Pickford withdrew from the England squad due to injury, which means West Ham ‘keeper Joe Hart is likely to retain his starting spot after a relatively problem-free performance against Malta. Eric Dier also returns from suspension after missing out on Friday.
Although Southgate confirmed that the captaincy will be spread throughout the squad as he continues to search for a permanent successor to Wayne Rooney, Jordan Henderson will retain the armband for this evening.
Slovakia can welcome back experienced centre-backs Martin Skrtel and Jan Durica after suspension, but goalkeeper Matus Kozacik has been ruled out with a back injury.
All eyes will be on Hamsik, the Slovak captain and their most important player.
Key Battle: Marek Hamsik vs Dele Alli
Whilst Alli isn’t England’s most important player just yet, he’s certainly on his way to that level of stardom and Southgate tends to rely on the 21-year-old for game-changing moments.
Capable of neat bits of skill to advance the ball into dangerous areas, and wonder-strikes from distance, Alli changes games all by himself and without Lallana, it very much comes down to individual moments of brilliance rather than a cohesive team performance.
The same can be said for Hamsik, though to a greater extent. Slovakia don’t boast the same level of quality as England throughout the squad and all eyes fall on Hamsik as his performance holds the key to whether Slovakia reach their second World Cup. He was the best player on the pitch when these nations met in the group stage of Euro 2016 and was unfortunate not to score that game.
Whichever attacking midfielder has the better game could prove decisive in the final outcome.
An early goal
Whilst England have the quality to mount a comeback, they suffer mentally when it comes to these sorts of performances and don’t offer have the steeliness required to turn games around, hence the importance of scoring first to get themselves off to the best possible start.
However, it’s not just the order of goals that proves important, but the timing too. England need to score first and early on to take the sting out of the Slovaks and allow them to exert some level of control over the game and possession.
The longer the game goes on without the Three Lions scoring, the more confident Slovakia become that they can see out a 0-0 draw, or even nick a win themselves, whilst England grow less confident and worry, panic and stress seeps into the performance.
Tonight, therefore, is about keeping their heads, remaining calm and scoring as early as possible.
Harry Kane vs Martin Skrtel
Another battle that holds the key to a positive result for both sides is that between Kane and Slovakian defender Skrtel. The former Liverpool man returns from suspension at a crucial time to provide a strong presence and experience to the backline.
It’s no surprise that Slovakia will find themselves on the back foot and under pressure for a majority of the game, such is the nature of each nation’s playing style, and Skrtel will be crucial in marshalling Kane.
Barely a day out of August and Kane found himself with two goals and an assist Friday’s win over Malta, but Skrtel is a former Premier League defender with years of experience in dealing with English strikers.
He’s a strong and aggressive presence, not afraid of getting stuck in and giving away strategic fouls when necessary. He’ll have his hands full, but it’s nothing he hasn’t dealt with in the past.
PREDICTION: England 1-0 Slovakia
Without Lallana in the side, creativity seems to be an issue for England and the Slovaks are head and shoulders better than Malta, whom the Three Lions struggled to break down.
I envisage Southgate’s side suffering from the same issue once more, but the difference in quality between the two nations should provide the decisive factor, with several English players capable of finding a goal late on. One should be enough, provided England remain solid in defence.
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