Richard Sutcliffe: Volgograd in mind as Southgate's England head to Wembley

WHEN the bid from Shahid Khan to buy Wembley first became public late last month the Fulham owner suggested the purchase could be completed by early August.

England manager Gareth Southgate shares a joke with players and staff during a training session at The Grove Hotel, London on Friday (Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire).
England manager Gareth Southgate shares a joke with players and staff during a training session at The Grove Hotel, London on Friday (Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire).

This now seems wildly optimistic as the Football Association continue their attempts to justify the proposed £600m sale not only to the sporting public but also their own Council.

Progress seems to have been made this week with chief executive Martin Glenn understood to have done a good job of selling the idea to board members. But the process will take much longer than Khan first envisaged with the FA hinting at a decision by “the autumn at the earliest”.

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It means today’s international against Nigeria will not be the final one played by England before the national team possibly become sitting tenants of an American businessman.

Instead, the Three Lions’ next Wembley assignment – the September 8 clash with Spain that kicks off the new Nations League – will take place with the FA still holding the keys to the stadium.

Whether the rest of the English footballing landscape remains untouched come that first international of next season in 98 days will be dictated by how events unfold in Russia this summer.

The hope has to be that the country has a smile on its face again as the 2010 World Cup winners pitch up at Wembley rather than the collective scowl that has invariably accompanied England’s first post-tournament outing over the past decade or so.

A quarter-final appearance would most likely be enough to sweep away the doom and gloom of recent years and get supporters back onside.

England's Danny Rose during a training session at The Grove Hotel, London. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA

Is such a target achievable? Most definitely thanks in part to a kind draw that means a meeting with either Colombia, Poland, Senegal or Japan awaits if England reach the first knockout stage.

Also fuelling a quiet sense of optimism is how manager Gareth Southgate has proved a breath of fresh air in remodelling a squad that had been scarred by all those years of under-achievement.

Out went the old and in has come a sense of vibrancy that suggests England, despite lacking the two or three genuine world-class players required even to think about prevailing at a World Cup, can make a good fist of things in Russia.

Southgate has proved himself a manager who does not mind doing things his own way. Not for the former Middlesbrough chief a prolonged selection process such as the one being employed by Nigeria’s Gernot Rohr, who last week cut his 30-man squad by five with a further two to follow after today’s Wembley friendly.

Instead all 23 members of Southgate’s party for Russia knew their fate more than a fortnight ago.

It has meant all energies being focused on staking a claim for the starting XI against Tunisia in Volgograd, with today’s Wembley send-off and next Thursday’s visit to Elland Road by Costa Rica the big opportunities to impress.

Just who makes the best case remains to be seen, but Southgate’s two selections will be fascinating.

Jesse Lingard will start today, possibly alongside Dele Alli and Eric Dier, in an attack-minded formation behind Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane.

With Liverpool duo Jordan Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold expected to be held back for the friendly in Leeds due to their Champions League exertions, Dier and Kieran Trippier at full-back have an opportunity to stake a claim for the June 18 opener.

Likewise Harry Maguire can do his own chances the world of good in the absence of Phil Jones, away for the birth of his child, as Southgate looks for the right blend in a back three that seems certain to feature Kyle Walker and John Stones.

Plenty to ponder, therefore, ahead of tackling opponents who were only selected once the draw for the World Cup had been made last December.

Nigeria fulfilled Southgate’s wish to face African opposition ahead of the group opener against Tunisia, while Costa Rica will be a decent practice run for tackling World Cup debutants Panama.

An impressive qualifying campaign means the Super Eagles should provide a stern test for England, even if they are only ranked 47th in the world according to FIFA.

The presence of Premier League quintet Victor Moses, Kelechi Iheanacho, Wilfred Ndidi, Alex Iwobi and Ahmed Musa will bring a much-needed competitive edge to proceedings.

Mikel John Obi, who had nine years at Chelsea, should also return to captain the side after missing last week’s 1-1 draw with DR Congo, a fixture that saw former Hull City loanee Ola Aina brought off the bench.

London-born Aina, who spent the 2017-18 season on loan at the KCOM, opted for Nigeria despite representing the Three Lions throughout the age groups up to Under-20s.

He will be hoping to stake a further claim today to underline the importance of this third meeting between the two countries. The same applies to many in a similarly inexperienced Three Lions set-up.

Southgate’s 23-man squad boasts no goals at a World Cup finals and no victories. Shedding those unwanted statistics is the task facing those who head to Russia on June 12.

Making it 13 games unbeaten today, on the back of a good performance, will not ensure that happens. But it will be an important step for a group hoping to break new ground.