On Sunday, the eagerly anticipated first game of Sam Allardyce’s reign as England manager gets underway. The setting is Trnava in Slovakia and England will be hoping to kick off their 2018 World Cup Qualifying Campaign in style. Both teams exited Euro 2016 at the Last 16 stage, however, Slovakia can take far more pride in their defeat to Germany than England can take in their reverse against Iceland. The two teams met in the group stages of the tournament and played out a goalless draw, England were disappointed then and will be hoping for more now.
As all too recent experience has taught us the dangers of over-hyping the national side but surely it can’t be too much to ask that the ‘Allardyce Era’ is more successful than those of Hodgson, Capello and McClaren. Allardyce has been hailed by many as a breath of fresh air, something different to what has gone before. He doesn’t bring with him the experience of having managed some of Europe’s super clubs, he instead made his name as ‘less glamorous sides’ such as Bolton, West Ham and most recently Sunderland, when he took over in October and managed to work his magic to keep the Black Cats in the Premier League. The appointment may even have come as a shock for Allardyce himself after he once claimed that he will never manage a top-four side as his surname isn’t ‘Allardici’.
Allardyce sprung a few surprises with his squad selection
No matter his background, Allardyce has wasted no time in putting his stamp on this England squad. The stand-out story being West Ham winger Michail Antonio receiving his first international call-up. Other talking points included a recall for Danny Drinkwater as well as Mark Noble’s continued exclusion.
Allardyce’s hand was rather forced in terms of goalkeepers though. Injuries to Jack Butland and Fraser Forster have handed Joe Hart the starting spot he may well have had to work for following his tough start to the season. These injuries have given chances to Burnley’s Tom Heaton and Southampton’s Alex McCarthy, who also received his first call-up from Allardyce.
In defence, there was a shock recall for Phil Jagielka, whose international career looked to be over after he was overlooked for the Euros. Luke Shaw also returned to the squad following his horrific leg break in October 2015 but has sadly since pulled out but Allardyce was quick to reassure fans that he was not injured.
England go into this game with all eyes on the midfield. For a start, the newly retained England Captain, Wayne Rooney, has been named as a midfielder, which strongly suggests Allardyce will use him in the number 10 role playing off the striker rather than upfront. Unsurprisingly, Jack Wilshere loses his place in the side as does Ross Barkley, a decision that has divided opinion, with football writer Henry Winter being one of the decisions harshest critics.
There was also no place for Mark Noble. There was anger from many that the likes of Jack Wilshere and Fabian Delph made England’s 26-man squad for the European Championships over Noble after his fantastic season. With Big Sam having managed Wesh Ham for four years, many saw Noble’s inclusion as a given.
Out wide Allardyce has decided to stick with Euro 2016 villain Raheem Sterling, although based on his rejuvenated form under Pep Guardiola, the decision seems a fair one. As does the inclusion of Antonio, who put in a series of high-quality performances last season which earned him rave reviews from his 23 Premier League outings. Rather unlike Theo Walcot, who had a torrid 2015/16 season. He only managed 15 starts in the league, scoring only five times and the whole time still facing questions over whether he is really a winger or a striker, his inclusion is by far the most shocking.
Upfront the squad is relatively controversy free apart from the decision to drop Marcus Rashford, one of the only England players who enhanced their reputation at Euro 2016, down to the Under-21’s. Harry Kane, Jamie Vary and Daniel Sturridge instead got the nod.
England (Confirmed): Hart; Walker, Cahill, Stones, Rose; Dier, Henderson; Lallana, Rooney, Sterling; Kane
Sam Allardyce made a bold call by deciding to announce his line-up on Friday, a whole two days before the match kicks off, clearly he has great faith in the eleven that he has picked. This may surprise many, as the team only shows three changes from the one that was humiliated by Iceland just two months ago. Stones, Henderson and Lallana come in for Smalling, Sturridge and Dele. The line-up means that Wayne Rooney will win his 116th England cap which will take him clear of David Beckham (115) as England’s most capped outfield player of all time. His inclusion as a number 10 drops Dele Alli to the bench and answers any lingering questions about his immediate international future.
England look as if they will be lining up in a 4-2-3-1 formation as opposed to the 4-3-3 used in Roy Hodgson’s final match. Expect to see Dier and Henderson sitting deep and spreading the ball out wide for Lallana and Sterling to do damage down the wings.
Key Player- Raheem Sterling
Having drawn 0-0 with them in France, England know exactly what they will get from Slovakia. They will set up with two solid banks of four and try to frustrate England. They will be well organised in defence and use their physicality to try and bully England. This could lead to a frustrating night for England unless they can find the quality to break their defence down. Sterling is one man that possesses the quality to do so, he has both the pace and skill to beat a man and unlock a defence which could be crucial to winning the match. He hasn’t impressed for England in the past but let’s hope that this season’s rejuvenated Sterling shows up rather than this summer’s shell.
Slovakia (Probable): Kozáčik; Hubočan, Ďurica, Škrtel, Pekarík; Pečovský, Gyömbér, Kucka; Hamšík, Mak; Ďuriš
Expect Slovakia to line up how they did at the Euros, with a variation of the 4-5-1 formation. Michal Ďuriš will act as a target man and don’t be surprised to see Slovakia searching for him whenever they win the ball back from England. Even at home, they will stick to what they know and will play a defensive game and would probably settle for a point if you offered them one before the match. Captain Martin Škrtel will lead from the front as always and expect to see some combative challenges from him during the course of the game.
Key Player- Marek Hamšík
Slovakia aren’t blessed with attacking talent but they sure are lucky to have this player. Any national side would want him in their side especially after his displays at the Euros. His wonder goal against Russia will live long in the memory and England can rest assured that any attacking threat Slovakia pose will come through the Napoli midfielder. England will most likely dominate possession but if they switch off defensively it could only take one counter-attack led by this man and they could pay the ultimate price.
Playing away in international football is never easy, yet England travel to Slovakia with the vastly superior squad. I know we were saying the same thing when the two sides met at the Euros and look what happened but I beleive the effect of playing outside the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a major tournament and the lift new manager Sam Allardyce will give the squad will be good enough to see England through. I expect England to have to work hard for it but I fancy them to win. I am going for 2-0 England.
Do you agree with my predictions? What do you think the score will be? Let us know on Twitter @OfficialTFF.
Slovakia vs England, Live on ITV1, coverage starts from 4:30pm, Kick-off at 5:00pm GMT at the Štadión Antona Malatinského (City Arena)