England seek spark against Slovakia to take advantage of soft draw

Declan Rice in action for England against Denmark. File photo

England manager Gareth Southgate has pinpointed expectation for the festering unease among his side’s travelling support but demand on the Three Lions to deliver at Euro 2024 has only risen after landing in the soft side of the draw.

Southgate’s men begin what they hope will be a road to Berlin for the final on July 14 against Slovakia in Gelsenkirchen on Sunday.

A rematch of the Euro 2020 final with Italy or Switzerland would then await in the quarters, while Austria, Turkey, the Netherlands or Romania are potential semi-final opponents.

There has been little in England’s performances in Germany so far to justify their hype as pre-tournament favourites.

But with Germany, France, Spain and Portugal all on the other side of the draw, the pressure has intensified on a richly-talented squad to finally start performing as a team.

“If people are being negative, it’s only because they expect a lot from you, which is a positive thing,” said Newcastle winger Anthony Gordon, who could be one of the changes Southgate turns to.

“If we want that to stop, we just need to perform and give people what they want to see.”

Despite topping Group C, England have managed only two goals in their opening three games.

The quartet of Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka and Harry Kane combined for 114 goals in club football in the 2023/24 campaign.

But together they have been a disjointed attacking unit that Southgate is under huge pressure to shake up in Gelsenkirchen.

Foden has rejoined the squad after flying back home to attend the birth of his third child.

However, his lack of time on the training field this week may mean the Premier League’s player of the year is the fall guy to try and balance the attack.

England’s lack of width on the left has been exposed by Southgate having no natural left-back available due to Luke Shaw’s injury and Foden’s tendency to drift inside.

Gordon backs himself to shine

Gordon looks set to be handed his chance despite having just a few minutes action in the tournament so far.

“My main strength is that I’m very direct. I’m obviously quick, so I’m a nightmare for anyone I play against,” Gordon told reporters on Friday to push his case for a first competitive England start.

“I’m not a very safe player, I’m always going for it, I’m always trying to put people on the back foot.

“I think with the players we’ve got, the likes of H (Kane), who likes to drop deep, I think I add a different element to the team.”

Kobbie Mainoo is expected to start in midfield after the 19-year-old made an impressive impact in his second half appearance against Slovenia.

Southgate also faces a clamour to unleash Cole Palmer.

The Chelsea playmaker, who scored 26 goals at club level last season, caught the eye in his late cameo against Slovenia and had England’s only shot on target of the second half.

So far Southgate has remained steadfast and stubborn in his team selection, making only one change to his starting line-up as Conor Gallagher replaced Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield for the third match.

A similar approach at the weekend risks further antagonising a fan base that threw beer cups at their coach after the Slovenia stalemate.

Southgate can point to his experience at negotiating his nation through the highs and lows of major tournaments.

England also scored only two goals in the group stage of the last Euros before progressing to a first major tournament final in 55 years.

However, it is the shades of Euro 2016 that will send shivers down the spines of England fans heading to Gelsenkirchen.

Eight years ago Roy Hodgson’s side also stumbled their way through the group phase with five points only to be handed a seemingly kind draw against Iceland.

What followed was arguably the most embarrassing night in English football history as the tiny island nation in their first every major tournament pulled off a shock 2-1 win.

Matching that nadir is what England’s current crop risk if they do not click through the gears come Sunday.

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