With just 40 days remaining until the start of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the countdown to the greatest show on Earth is well and truly on.
Despite their being only two games left in the Premier League, there’s still time for one or two players to impress Gareth Southgate and make the 23-man squad for the tournament.
As it stands, Southgate has likely settled on around 20 players that you can safely say will make the plane next month.
He has been praised for handing chances to a wide range of players, from those in-form to youngsters who have impressed domestically and in Europe. With 3 goalkeepers an unavoidable requirement – Jordan Pickford, Joe Hart and Jake Butland are the likely trio in that department – that leaves 20 places available for outfield players.
Working from up-front (as those places seem more settled), we can start to name the likely lads who will try and bring football home for the first time since 1966.
Harry Kane is probably the first name on the teamsheet, despite this being his first major tournament where he’s the undisputed first-choice up front. Kane is arguably the best ‘number 9’ in the game at the minute and is a brilliant footballer to rely on.
Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard, Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford are all surely certainties to support Kane across the midfield and wings. Perhaps Rashford isn’t 100% guaranteed to be going to Russia owing to his limited opportunities of late at Manchester United, but the youngster performs well for England and has a huge fan in the form of Southgate.
There seems to be no question that both Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli will be in the squad – the only conundrum for Southgate is who to start as the number 10 between the pair. Alli brings more quality, but Lingard has been a standout performer for United this season and produced better form than the temperamental Spurs midfielder.
Moving to midfield, this is where it starts to get tricky. In the middle, Jordan Henderson will likely lead the team out during the World Cup, so he is a certainty. Eric Dier brings solidity and defensive reassurance, so he too will be part of Southgate’s plans.
Beyond that, there is a clutch of players for Southgate to hand an opportunity to. These include Ruben Loftus-Cheek, the young man-mountain of a centre midfielder who has impressed both Palace, his loan club, and the national team this year. His flourishing end-of-season form seems to have done enough to convince Southgate to bring him along.
Jake Livermore doesn’t look like he’ll make the 23 man squad, owing to declining form in an abysmal West Brom side. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s injury has made things more difficult for Southgate. Adam Lallana, himself beguiled by injury this year, has probably come back to first-team action too late to impact Southgate’s decision, although he represents a good wildcard to bring on in the dying minutes of a game.
Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere seems likely to be drafted into the squad. He’s become a regular for Arsenal during the second half of the season and is England’s most naturally gifted footballer. A fit Wilshere is a vital addition to an otherwise static midfield devoid of ideas.
In defence, it’s essentially a guessing game at this point. Kyle Walker is the only certainty, such is the dire form English defenders have showed this year. In central defence, the first choice trio – assuming Southgate takes his 3-4-3/3-5-2 hybrid to Russia, seems to be John Stones, Harry Maguire and Phil Jones. Beyond that, Gary Cahill has made a timely return to the Chelsea starting XI, but Southgate doesn’t appear to rate him. His experience of knockout football for Chelsea will serve the side well, however, so Southgate may hand him a ticket.
Chris Smalling tends to split opinion: he’s either and outstanding defender or an accident waiting to happen. Southgate appears 50/50 on this front. I think Smalling will just about make it but I don’t expect him to start the first group stage game against Panama.
At full-back, the two footballers that aren’t actually full-backs will almost certainly be heading to Russia this summer. Fabian Delph and Ashley Young are naturally centre-midfielder and winger respectively, but they have shone as auxiliary left-backs this season, putting Danny Rose and Luke Shaw to shame.
The latter seems like a certainty NOT to be at the World Cup this summer; he can barely make the Man United bench let alone get the minutes to impress Southgate every weekend. Rose will join the squad, mainly for his natural ability at full-back, although he is terribly out-of-form.
Supporting Kyle Walker will likely be Kieran Trippier, who has been outstanding for Spurs at times this year and brings an unrivalled crossing ability from the flanks.