England face their toughest test in Group I of the qualification stage for the 2022 World Cup when they welcome Poland to Wembley on Wednesday at 7:45pm (UK time).
Gareth Southgate’s men have made a faultless start to the round-robin preliminaries, comfortably seeing off FIFA’s worst-ranked nation San Marino 5-0, before easing past Albania 2-0 on Sunday, which has consolidated their early standing in first.
Hot on England’s heels, though, are Poland, who have also made an unbeaten start to the qualifiers, but their opening-day draw with Hungary means they travel to the hallowed Wembley turf two points behind their hosts and knowing they have only ever tasted victory against The Three Lions once, a 2-0 win in 1973.
Will Southgate’s side make it three wins from three to further enhance their status as Group I table-toppers? Or can Paulo Sousa inspire a Bialo-czerwoni triumph to leapfrog the early pace-setters and keep things tight at the summit? Read on for Squawka’s predictions.
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1. England to line up like…
Southgate remained tight-lipped in the immediate aftermath of his side’s 2-0 win over Albania, saying “we’ll keep the decision-making in-house,” but he may be tempted to make a couple to tweaks, particularly as Poland, at least on paper, pose a far more dangerous threat than Sunday’s opponents.
Kyle Walker was nursing a slight knock just before the Albania contest but shook it off in time to start, so he may be kept on ice here, opening the door for either Kieran Trippier or Reece James to enter the fray, the latter of whom was given the nod from the off against San Marino.
Southgate was effusive in his praise of Mason Mount after the Albania win, so the Chelsea graduate will likely retain his central berth, while Jesse Lingard may be restored to the XI in a slight attacking rotation, bringing a bit more experience and know-how to the frontline.
Other than that, Nick Pope has marked his six caps with six cleans sheets, while the Harry Maguire-John Stones centre-half partnership worked well in tandem. Luke Shaw provided the assist for Kane’s opening goal against Albania and remains ahead of Ben Chilwell in the left-back pecking order.
2. Poland to line up like…
It was the mother of all subplots: Kane vs Lewandowski. However, Sousa must now prepare for a mouthwatering clash against England without his leading marksman, who has been ruled out of this contest owing to a knee injury picked up in the previous match.
The key question for Sousa, therefore, will be one of tactics rather than personnel. He has been a staunch adherent of a two-man strike partnership for the opening two qualifiers, which has yielded six goals and culminated in Lewandowski top-scoring so far with three to his name.
However, without the Bayern Munich forward, he may be tempted to revert to a 4-2-3-1 which was the favoured formation during autumn’s international breaks. That said, in Krzysztof Piatek and Arkadiusz Milik, he has two formidable forwards capable of leading the line together and may, therefore, stick rather than twist.
Milik’s transition up the turf may also push Piotr Zielinski into the hole. The Napoli midfielder has the technical capabilities to thrive as a No. 10 and has shone there previously for Poland.
Having kept a clean sheet and cantered to victory over Andorra, Sousa may avoid making too many changes elsewhere, but Jan Bednarek could be in for a recall as a player with Premier League experience to partner veteran Kamil Glik at centre-back.
3. England’s own ‘Lewandowski’ to find the target
Despite the absence of Lewandowski for Wednesday night’s match, Southgate believes there will still be a world-class striker on display at Wembley in Kane. Speaking before the contest, Southgate drew comparisons with both players, believing the duo are operating at a similarly “elite level”.
“I think the two are similar in that, I think Lewandowski is also very good with his ability to assist and there are not many outright number nines in the world at the moment at the really elite level,” he said.
Kane’s recent finish for England against Albania ended a run of six games without a goal at international level, and he will feel confident of finding the target in consecutive games for the first time since November 2019, as he has been in stellar form at club level this season.
The Spurs striker is one of just three players, alongside Lewandowski and Lionel Messi, to have been directly involved in 30+ league goals this season. Lewandowski (41, 35 goals and six assists) leads the charge, while Messi (31, 23 goals and eights assists) and Kane (30, 17 goals and 13 assists) make up the top three.
That kind of ferocious firepower should be enough for England to fulfil their obligations in the final third, while Kane will be relishing a renewal of an old rivalry, taking on former Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, a man he enjoyed plenty of success against in North London derbies.
4. Pope to make it seven from seven
It’s difficult to see where the goals will come from for Poland without Lewandowski. Piatek, once heralded as the Second Coming of Andriy Shevchenko when he traded Genoa for AC Milan in 2019, has largely flattered to deceive since trading Italian football for Hertha Berlin, netting just six Bundesliga goals this season.
Milik offers another deadly threat, but injuries have beset his career in recent times and he is far from the devastating forward he once was, although still an elite player on his day, as his recent loan spell at Marseille will attest to.
So, it may be that Pope — who has already been confirmed to start against Poland by Southgate — may be in for a less strenuous task than he was perhaps anticipating last week, and that could mean a continuation of his record clean-sheet start between the sticks.
Nick Pope has become the first goalkeeper not to concede a goal in any of his first six games for England.
He’s not had a save to make in his last two games. pic.twitter.com/d1r6wr24I5
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 28, 2021
As it stands, the Burnley gloveman has kept six clean sheets from his opening six appearances at international level, becoming the first England ‘keeper to achieve such a feat, while he has also not had a single save to make in his last two games.
Make no mistake, Poland have the potential firepower to trouble England even without Lewandowski, but The Three Lions have proven defensively competent in recent showings and that trend may well continue in midweek, with Pope eyeing up a seventh successive shutout.
5. Lingard to translate club form on the international stage
Since making his Premier League debut for West Ham in a five-goal thriller at Villa Park, no player in the division has made more direct goalscoring contributions than Lingard (seven, five goals and two assists). No wonder Southgate jumped at the chance to recall the Man Utd loanee.
Couple in the fact that Lingard has also won two penalties for The Hammers, something they had failed to do before his arrival, and the impact the 28-year-old has had in E20 has been nothing short of sensational, elevating David Moyes’ side to stratospheric heights.
It was evident against minnows San Marino, although hard to judge given the level of opposition, that Lingard has reverted to type and is once again operating at a level similar to his high-noon season at Old Trafford (2017/18), now looking to retain his spot in the international fold for the upcoming tournament.
He played on the front foot, registered a quite astonishing 10 shots (more than any player on the turf against San Marino), provided an assist, and constantly looked to make things happen. If given the nod against Poland, he will be desperate to continue highlighting his return to form, and that could mean another stellar performance in an England jersey.
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