England can put one foot in the Euro 2020 finals with victory over Kosovo on Tuesday, and seal an unbeaten decade of qualifying.
The team are unbeaten in qualifying for major tournaments since a 1-0 loss to Ukraine in their final World Cup 2010 qualifier under then-manager Fabio Capello.
Reaching tournament finals has become somewhat of a given for English sides since then – but that defeat in 2009 came only two years after one of Englands darkest moments in recent history, when they missed out on Euro 2008 altogether after a shock home defeat to Croatia in their final qualifying game at Wembley.
England manager Gareth Southgate has confirmed Harry Kane will start against Kosovo on Tuesday, but is adamant his skipper is not “undroppable”.
Tottenham striker Kane scored a hat-trick as the Three Lions eased to a 4-0 Euro 2020 qualifying victory over Bulgaria on Saturday.
Then again, opponents Kosovo are on a pretty decent run of their own. Theyre unbeaten in 15, a stretch that goes back nearly two years. Having just beaten Bulgaria 3-2 and the Czech Republic 2-1, theyre looking to make it three wins on the bounce in Group A. And they might take a little historical comfort from the result of Englands one previous visit to Southampton in the Euro qualifiers, a 2-2 draw with Macedonia in 2002.
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It comes after he had to settle for a place on the bench in the Nations League semi-final against Netherlands after missing much of the latter stages of last season through injury.
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Southgate plans to make changes for the game at St Marys but says Kanes quality makes it difficult for him to be left out, and he will resist the temptation to rest him for what will be the first ever meeting between the two nations at senior level.
The way things have been going recently, youd expect England to do well at St Marys tonight. Thats because theyve won their first three Group A qualifiers to the aggregate tune of 14-1; theyve won 33 of their last 42 qualification matches, drawing the others in a ten-year unbeaten run; and theyre unbeaten in 29 competitive home fixtures staged away from Wembley, a sequence that stretches back to 1936.
“In the summer we decided that he wasnt ready to start, so I dont think you can have a player that is undroppable, because that is a dangerous route for any team and it is not a healthy position for a player,” Southgate said.
“But it is safe to say we wont be dropping him for tomorrow. His level of performance is so high that dropping him would be a rare occurrence.
“We might freshen the team a bit, that will be important. We dont need to, everyone is fit and available. We need to make sure we get the balance right.
Southgate is wary of the threat posed by a second-placed Kosovo side, who have already defeated Czech Republic in Group A.
With the Kosovo fixture taking place at St Mary’s, all 23 members of Southgate’s squad prepared for the game at Southampton’s Staplewood training base on Monday.
“We are expecting a different sort of challenge to Saturday – but one we are looking forward to,” he said.
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“It will be a very different style of game. Kosovo will be very high pressing, hard working, a more attacking threat than we faced on Saturday.
“Maybe there will be more space to play up front. Whatever we learned from Saturdays game this is a completely different challenge.”
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Southgate, meanwhile, gave praise to midfielder Declan Rice for the way he has dealt with social media abuse directed towards him and his family after switching international allegiance to England from the Republic of Ireland.
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“When I spoke with Declan about the possibility of him transferring association across, I was very conscious that this was something that could happen,” Southgate said.
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“That is why I wanted to tread very carefully, to make sure him and his family had all the time they needed to make a decision.