England’s qualification with games to spare for next year’s World Cup finals had looked like a formality but two draws in its last three Group I qualifiers has raised the stakes ahead of Friday’s home clash with Albania.
Gareth Southgate’s side needs four points from its final two fixtures to guarantee winning the group and with an away fixture against San Marino on Monday it is hardly a tall order.
Yet with injuries and illness disrupting Southgate’s plans and an in-form Albania still eyeing qualification, the Wembley clash takes on greater significance.
England has won each of its five meetings against Albania but the Balkan side is third in the standings having done the double over Hungary and losing narrowly to second-placed Poland.
Should Edoardo Reja’s side pull off a surprise victory at Wembley and Poland beat Andorra it would leave England and Poland level on points ahead of next week’s final fixtures.
Even in that scenario, England would likely bolster its goal difference sufficiently against San Marino to crawl across the line, but the momentum has definitely slowed.
Southgate will be without midfielder Declan Rice through ilness on Friday and most probably Mason Mount, who has had dental surgery, while full back Luke Shaw is a major doubt because of concussion protocols.
“Training’s been good. We’ve had a few players had to withdraw but we’ve been dealing with that. It’s never straightforward, we’ve just got on with it,” Southgate said.
“Mason has to recover from his dental surgery while Luke didn’t pass his first HIA (Head Injury Assessment) and quite rightly we have to follow the guidelines on that.”
There was better news regarding Jack Grealish who will be available, Southgate said, after also suffering from illness.
England’s draw in Poland and then, more surprisingly, at home to Hungary has left them on 20 points, three ahead of Poland while Albania has 15 points.
England captain Harry Kane, who scored in the 2-0 win away to Albania in March, said he was expecting a stern test.
“It’s a game we want to win. We need four points to qualify so the sooner we can get the three point on the board (for a win) the better,” Kane told reporters.
“We expect a tough game as Albania still have a chance to qualify. They’ll bring a lot of energy and passion, and we’ve got to make sure we match that. It’ll be a tough battle.
“We know there’s still a lot of hard work needed and we’ll be ready for the challenge.”
Kane, who has been in disappointing form for Tottenham Hotspur this season, said the 1-1 draw at home to Hungary last time out had given the squad a jolt.
“Whenever you have a disappointing game, or you don’t reach the standards you normally reach, it kind of wakes you up a little bit and makes you realise there’s still work to do, still more to improve on,” the striker said.
“Three points from that game would have really helped towards securing qualification, so now it’s about turning it round and responding to that game.”