17:00 (BST); Sunday 8th October; LFF Stadium (Vilnius, Lithuania); ITV
On paper, England arrive at the final game of their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign in relative comfort. Gareth Southgate’s men are 5 points ahead of 2nd place Scotland and booked their ticket to Russia with a game to spare. Despite this, it’s been a lacklustre campaign for the Three Lions so far and they will look for an emphatic win against a minnow.
Lithuania may have already been eliminated from the qualifying process but they would love nothing more than to put their home advantage to good use and stifle the English. They have nothing but pride to play for now and hope to at least make it a very difficult game.
Last Time Out
Malta 1-1 LITHUANIA
The Lithuanians let themselves down with a poor performance against Malta. The group’s whipping boys even drew first blood and held out for a draw. The visitors had far more possession and chances at goal but could not break down the stubborn Maltese. Lithuania could have even found themselves at the wrong end of a 2-1 scoreline if luck had not been on their side.
Had they won this game, Lithuania would have gone into the final game with a chance at a respectable fourth place finish.
ENGLAND 1-0 Slovenia
England dragged themselves over the finish line with a 93rd-minute winner by in-form striker Harry Kane. It was a grim affair, devoid of the killer instinct and effectiveness associated with top international teams. Players like Kane and Rashford tried but were frustrated by the Slovenians, who themselves threatened to hurt England on the counter.
A laboured win merely points to England’s well-documented efficiency in the qualifying stages. Gareth Southgate has much work to do if he expects his side to be taken seriously next summer.
Lithuania will line up in a 4-3-3 formation but are expected to collapse into the centre to lure England in and hit them on the counter with their three forwards.
In the reverse fixture, the Lithuanians showed that they were not averse to pushing up and using their physicality to take the fight to their more illustrious opponents. In a game with nothing to lose, we can expect more of the same here.
After the dismal display in their previous game, Gareth Southgate is expected to give the rest of his squad a chance to express themselves and stake a claim. This creates meaning for the players starting this game, in spite of the perfunctory nature of the game.
Key Battle: Dele Alli vs Tomas Mikuckis
Dele is expected to return to the lineup after serving a one-match ban. His direct style of play is very much needed to provide England with some penetrative power. Mikuckis will have a real challenge on his hands.
Mikuckis needs to be careful not to get drawn too far out of his position but also needs to get out quickly enough to stop Dele linking up with the other forwards. Should Mikuckis fail, Dele could have a big impact on the game.
Alli needs to assert himself in this game. With Adam Lallana still out of contention, England are short of innovative forward play. If Dele can recreate his club form on the international stage, he can be the one to lead England out of their creative slump.
Do England have quality in depth?
Jordan Henderson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have been uninspiring in their recent performances. Behind them in the pecking order are Jake Livermore and Harry Winks.
The quality of England’s central midfield is a far cry from what they enjoyed in the 2000s, with the likes of Lampard, Gerrard, Hargreaves and Scholes. The latter group may have underachieved, but their quality was never in doubt.
Southgate desperately needs his untested midfielders to show that they can cut it at this level of the game so that some confidence can be restored in the current squad.
Will Southgate allow his players more freedom?
Gareth Southgate is a decent manager who has done a job to lead his charges through a relatively untroubled qualification campaign. But for all his talk of depending on the enthusiasm of youth, Southgate is widely regarded as a safety-first manager, whose tactics somewhat stifle his most potent players.
Along with Harry Kane and Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling have the potential to be great on the international stage. Southgate needs to bring out the best in them. It might help if he could replicate elements from the top Premier League sides.
Can Daniel Sturridge re-establish himself with England?
After returning from the wilderness of a long-term injury, Sturridge is still finding his way back to top form. With England, he remains backup to Harry Kane and even Jamie Vardy. This demarcation relieves him of the pressure he faces at Liverpool, where despite being the only senior out-and-out striker, he struggles to get game time.
Scoring against Lithuania would provide him with some solace. If he can prove himself dependable, Sturridge could follow in the footsteps of Lukas Podolski, who remained a regular in the German national team despite being unable to assert himself at club level.
PREDICTION: Lithuania 0 – 2 England
England will finish the campaign in the same efficient manner they’ve carried themselves throughout. It should be a frustrating game but England have enough quality to punctuate proceedings with some decent passages of play and a goal or two.
However, anything less than a professional performance could see Gareth Southgate receive even more brickbats and leave fans lamenting the regression of the national team, which doesn’t bode well for the summer.
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