LONDON – England approach Tuesday’s friendly against Italy grappling with a familiar set of recurring problems that seem to resurface whenever major soccer tournaments approach.
An injury to Harry Kane will deny them their most potent weapon at Wembley with concerns over the Tottenham Hotspur striker’s availability for the World Cup mirroring storylines from other build-ups when former linchpins Bryan Robson, David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole all struggled for fitness.
Kane is expected to return to action next month and, if the 24-year-old then stays fit, will be one of only a handful of players guaranteed a start in England’s World Cup opener against Tunisia in June, as manager Gareth Southgate struggles with issues throughout the team.
Kane’s club mate Dele Alli has long seemed a shoo-in as support striker, but he has struggled to live up to the praise from Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino, who this month referred to him as the best 21-year-old in the world.
Alli again looked ineffectual when he came on as a substitute in England’s 1-0 victory over the Netherlands in Amsterdam on Friday and goal-scorer Jesse Lingard made a strong case for inclusion in Southgate’s World Cup starting line-up.
Alli’s chances may be further restricted if England go into the tournament with the 3-5-2 formation employed in Amsterdam, as Southgate might opt for Raheem Sterling alongside Kane on the back of the 23-year-old’s fine club season with Manchester City.
With time running out, Alli has the chance to make his case against Italy when Southgate is expected to name him up front with Jamie Vardy, whose pace and prolific goal-scoring record makes him a certainty for the squad.
The same can no longer be said about Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere who, although long touted as the answer to England’s problems in midfield, is once again absent injured and appears to be too brittle for a major tournament.
That leaves Southgate short of creativity with Liverpool’s Adam Lallana struggling for games and fitness after impressing for England last season.
There is further uncertainty over the goalkeeper, an area of traditional English strength.
With little more than two months remaining, Southgate has yet to settle on a first-choice, and Stoke City’s Jack Butland is likely to be given a chance to stake his claim on Tuesday ahead of Everton’s Jordan Pickford, who kept a clean sheet in Amsterdam.
Observers cautiously praised England’s performance against a Dutch side who showed why they were not good enough to qualify for the World Cup finals.
Few, though, are tipping England to progress far in Russia despite a favourable group draw that has placed them alongside Belgium, Tunisia and Panama.
Off the field, there were more echoes from the past as the Football Association (FA) condemned the “unacceptable scenes” which led to 100 England supporters being arrested in Amsterdam.
While England’s hooligan problem is not on the same scale as in the past, police have raised concerns over supporters clashing with Russian counterparts in June and July.