Preparing for a major tournament is a thankless task, even before you factor in a global health emergency.
Modern qualifying groups have become so bloated that elite countries like England are rarely asked to play a true top team in the two-year bouts that traditionally separate the summer finals.
For example, since the 2019 Nations League Summer Finals, Gareth Southgate’s side has played 16 games.
England are finally facing a real test of their mettle when they take on Poland on Wednesday evening
The Three Lions have rarely faced a tough challenge since the Nations League final in 2019
Only two – home and away to Belgium – were against a truly first-class team. No wonder it can be difficult when a World Cup or Euro actually starts. The step up can be a challenge.
At Wembley, Poland is the opposition in England’s last competitive match for this summer’s European Championship. In any case, they are in the top 20 in the world, at 19. One step higher than last week’s mismatches against Albania and San Marino. The Poles may be missing their best player, striker Robert Lewandowski, and are grappling with a Covid outbreak. But at least Southgate’s England can expect a challenge.
West Ham midfielder Declan Rice said: “There will be no international break in April and the two games in June are warm-up games for the euro, so this is the last chance to play.
However, the Poles will provide a stepping stone to the recent challenges of San Marino and Albania
For Southgate, the clash at Wembley offers one last chance to look at his options firsthand
‘No disdain for San Marino and Albania, but it will be a real step forward and closer to the opposition we will face in the euros. It’s an opportunity to get out there and make a statement. ‘
Rice, just 22, spoke well on Tuesday about the media jobs in England. His manager says he has embraced the culture and demands of international football.
But to take Rice’s career with England in isolation is to see a small part of the problem facing the modern day player. More than half of his 13 starts came against Iceland, Kosovo, Albania, Bulgaria and Montenegro. It is difficult to estimate exactly what he learns from those games.
Wednesday – when it’s expected to start – could be a bit tougher and Southgate will hope so.
There is no international break and there are only two friendlies in June for the euro
He has to pick a squad for the euro before his players reunite for two pre-tournament-friendly games in June and it would be helpful to see them perform under a little pressure again.
“I’m excited to see the team play,” said Southgate. ‘We cannot do anything about the course of the matches. That’s why we should always drive performance and not just be satisfied that we’ve won competitions.
‘We are always looking at how we can improve. We are not comfortable with what we have done. We have some really down to earth young players who will give themselves the best chance of success.
Someone like Declan is highly motivated – he wants to get better every time, he wants to learn. He’s a sponge for information and we have quite a few of them. And we have senior players who are happy to share that information and help them develop.
There is a lot of expectation from Harry Kane, but in general Southgate has plow depth
The Poles, led by Paulo Sousa, kept the zero against Italy and its smart operators
‘It is an environment that I enjoy. But we have to deliver, that’s the next challenge. ‘
Southgate pointed out that this isn’t a team approaching summer depending on one player. There would be a real fuss if Harry Kane were to be injured late in the season, but Southgate is broadly right. This is a team with depth in creative areas.
How England deals defensively is something we will be less sure of. It is not often the case that they are really put to the test. In fairness, it would have been informative to see Harry Maguire versus Lewandowski, but it isn’t.
The Poles are not spectacular opponents, but they are serious enough. For example, they are the only team in 21 games to prevent Italy from scoring. They drew 0-0 with Roberto Mancini’s team last October.
Wednesday night’s game could provide clues as to how both teams will fare in the euro
Their qualification for the European Championship came under the leadership of coach Jerzy Brzeczek. Despite this, he was fired in January and replaced by the Portuguese Paulo Sousa.
This is a competition that will go a long way in determining who tops the Group I World Cup qualifier. In this twisted world football calendar, it can also give us clues as to how both teams expect to score in this summer’s euro.
Southgate gave up ‘normal’ a long time ago. For example, he will not see his team play for two months after this.
He will wish them to win and win well.