International friendlies stripped of so many big-hitters can be unedifying affairs and although England will be playing for World Cup qualification in Andorra, it will have much the same vibe.
Gareth Southgate needs to be careful with his frontline players, most of whom have Champions League, Europa League or Europa Conference fixtures on top of their busy domestic schedules.
A game against a side who have only won four major tournament qualifying games in their history is as good a time as any for a bit of rest and rotation.
But as well as playing their part in booking England’s place at the Qatar winter World Cup as early as possible, those who turn out at the Estadi Nacional have an important job to do in keeping the A team on their toes.
Many of the heroes of England’s run to the European Championship final have not hit the same heights since. It is almost as if we make unreasonable demands of our top players.
Harry Maguire and fellow Sheffielder Dominic Calvert-Lewin are injured, along with Chelsea’s Reece James, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips, who has quickly and impressively established himself as one of the most important components of the team. Mason Mount is fit, but injuries have restricted him at Stamford Bridge in the early part of 2021-22.
A pre-season bout of Covid-19 means that in the short-term at least, goalkeeper Dean Henderson – who withdrew from the Euros injured – has lost the battle for minutes at Manchester United.
Incredibly, given how important he was to them last season, Barnsley-born John Stones is yet to play a minute for Manchester City in this one and whilst Jack Grealish certainly has, his form is yet to convince, as evidenced by a disappointing display at Anfield last weekend. He has, though, shoved Raheem Sterling into the background, with just two Premier League starts so far. Ben Chilwell’s lack of club football cost him his place in the original squad, before being drafted in.
Jude Bellingham has been rested, Southgate admitted Jadon Sancho was “lucky” to be picked given how he has been playing and Harry Kane’s Premier League form would be more of a worry if his record for England and flat-track-bullying in Europe were not vastly different.
Southgate naming Kieran Trippier as captain this evening guarantees two things: firstly Kane will not be starting, secondly the manager will get plenty of earache until he finally relents and allows his goal-hungry centre-forward the chance of a few cheap goals in his insatiable pursuit of his country’s all-time goalscoring record.
When England made the semi-finals of the World Cup three years ago, some of the hangovers took a long time to shift. Jesse Lingard’s form only started to recover this year and Dele Alli and Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s arguably never has. Stones and Kyle Walker looked at one point to have been left behind by England, only for second winds last season.
Then, the squad was reinvigorated by plenty of fresh talent – principally Grealish, Mount, Phillips, James, Sancho, Bellingham, Calvert-Lewin, Phil Foden, Declan Rice and Bukayo Saka.
Another infusion may be due and there could be players tonight whose performances volunteer them. Former Hull City loanee Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham, both now playing in Serie A, should see themselves in that light, along with Ollie Watkins.
If England can do their job in the coming days, there will be plenty of scope for experimentation. At worst victory over Andorra and at home to Hungary on Tuesday will put them a win away from the World Cup; if results elsewhere go their way, the final games against Albania and San Marino could both be dead rubbers.
For some fans and some of Southgate’s leading lights, matches against those two footballing pygmies with nothing riding on them could be a bit of a drag, just like tonight’s threatens to be, but there may be fringe benefits for those ready to take them.