A JOURNEY the country hopes will begin and end at Wembley gets under way tonight.
Gareth Southgate’s England host the Czech Republic in their opening qualifier for a European Championships that will be played across the continent.
From Baku to Bucharest and Spain to Scotland, next year’s finals will be staged in a one-off format as a nod to the tournament’s 60th birthday that Michel Platini, then UEFA president, once described as a “romantic” gesture.
Whether supporters facing potentially huge travelling distances between the dozen host cities will follow Platini’s lead in being swept off their feet by Euro 2020 remains to be seen.
But, following the huge strides taken by the Three Lions in 2018, there is an unmistakable sense that next year could be something special thanks to Wembley hosting not only the final but also both semi-finals.
For that to happen, England must, of course, first qualify. Which is where tonight’s visit to the capital by the Czechs comes in.
It is the first of two qualifiers in four days and eight before the end of the year that will decide whether the Three Lions get to come to the 2020 party whose climax is being hosted in their own back yard.
Montenegro, Bulgaria and Kosovo also make up Group A, suggesting the route to the finals should not be too arduous for a side that is already guaranteed the safety net of a play-off place after reaching this summer’s UEFA Nations League semi-finals.
This much is reflected in one bookmaker offering odds of 500-1 ON for the Three Lions to be one of the 24 nations competing in the Euro finals come June next year.
Kosovo are ranked a risible 130th in the world by FIFA, while Bulgaria (48th), Montenegro (46th) and Czech Republic (44th) are also way down the list of footballing nations on the up.
Another explanation for the bookies’ faith in England lays with what was a truly exceptional 2018.
Improving on that Nations League group triumph over Spain and Croatia, plus a place in the last four of the World Cup, will not be easy.
The signs, though, are promising with the precociously gifted Jadon Sancho’s possible starting role tonight adding to the attacking firepower at Southgate’s disposal.
The ankle injury that has ruled out Marcus Rashford, a key figure in last year’s success after matching a 52-year record held by Jack Charlton due to making 16 appearances for the national team, could hand Sancho his chance alongside Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling in attack.
Dele Alli is also an option, underlining just how far England have come under Southgate as an attacking entity.
There are, of course, areas to improve. Chief among these is a need to be more ruthless in front of goal.
Against Croatia in November, England should have had the three points sealed long before Jesse Lingard and Kane struck deep into the final quarter to clinch a 2-1 victory.
Eradicating this profligacy will be key going forward, and especially in Portugal come the summer and then Euro 2020 a year later. Adding credence to the belief Southgate will bring about the necessary improvements is how adept he proved at problem solving in his second full year at the helm.
Ditching the three-man backline that carried England so close to glory in Russia as a solution to the midfield being over-run against better teams such as Croatia and Belgium proved a masterstroke.
As did promoting Ben Chilwell, once a loanee at Huddersfield Town, to the left-back role in the wake of the World Cup and partnering John Stones with Joe Gomez in a new-look back four.
Stones’s withdrawal this week through injury has left Southgate with a dilemma in defence.
Former Sheffield United and Hull City defender Harry Maguire seems set to start along with, possibly, Michael Keane as Southgate once again looks for the Midas touch that has taken England so far in such a short space of time.
Either way, tonight’s visitors seem unlikely to trouble a squad who know that qualification will mean up to five Euro 2020 games being played on home soil.
These potential Wembley dates include either two or three group games, Scotland’s qualification (stop sniggering at the back!) being the variable.
England can only be helped by the sort of advantage that proved so beneficial in 1966 and again 30 years later.
First, though, the Czechs have to be bounced out of Wembley. The lowly standing of tonight’s visitors is in stark contrast to the first 21 years of FIFA rankings, which began in 1994.
Czech football boasted such a good reputation that they rarely dropped out of the top 30.
The peak came via a number 2 standing in 1999, plus an appearance in the Euro 96 final in England.
Now, though, the current crop are a pale shadow of those sides and Wembley should kick off a potentially hugely exciting 16 months for both the stadium and the national team with a comfortable home win.