It's back to Wembley for England on Friday
Scotland may be ranked only the 44th-best nation in the world, may have a Derby County reserve in goal and may have fluffed their first game in a major tournament in 23 years, but they also represent the sternest test England have faced since the World Cup semi-final defeat by Croatia. Gareth Southgate’s side need to pass it convincingly to prove they are true contenders for Euro 2020.
Yes, since Russia, England have reached the finals of the Nations League and then beaten Belgium in the second edition of that competition – albeit in failing to progress – but the occasion and all the baggage it brings in facing a wounded but dangerous Scotland means that the stakes are at their highest since the last-four defeat, after extra time, in Moscow three years ago.
Despite the resonance over Euro ’96 and Paul Gascoigne’s goal in beating Scotland – also in the second group game – facing them again also represents a unique set of circumstances. Southgate concedes that, as much as the technical and tactical aspects of being prepared, he has to make sure the “emotional aspect” is taken care of with the players. Those emotions would certainly be tested with the wrong result ahead of the final group game against Czech Republic, who showed how dangerous they could be in deflating Scotland on Monday at Hampden Park.
It is not just the pressure of tournament football that England have to deal with, but the vagaries of what is effectively a derby, in which their clear superiority may be nullified – at least for a while – by the blood and thunder of history and sheer adrenalin. So Southgate acknowledged there was more at stake than three points.
“There is this additional factor that we’re all aware of and that makes winning an even bigger prize, but we can’t be too distracted by that,” he said. “We know for our supporters the additional edge a game with one of the home nations has – for both sides.
“We are representing our country and we have to have a sense of what it means for our supporters to perform at our very best and do them proud. We have to balance that by making sure that our preparation is about the performance, but not underprepare in that emotional aspect.”
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Southgate will resist the temptation for rotation, apart from his full-backs, because he wants to firstly secure qualification from Group D and remain fully in control of his side’s destiny, but also because he knows risking a negative result (and equally a disappointing performance) would have a detrimental effect on the camp who, to his credit, have worked serenely since the disruption caused by players arriving late after featuring in European club finals and withdrawals.
Sunday’s win over Croatia may only have been by a slender 1-0, but it was certainly far more convincing than that as England not only won an opening group game at a European Championship for the first time at the 10th attempt but, arguably, defeated a leading nation in a finals for the first time in 90 minutes since the victory over Argentina at the 2002 World Cup.
Indeed, so assured and mature was it that it drew praise from the highly experienced Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci, who knows a thing or two about controlling games and keeping clean sheets. “For the approach they showed, the way they were willing to work hard for one another and the fact they sought three points, England are the team that have impressed me most so far,” Bonucci said. High praise.
Southgate is also well aware, from his experience as a player with England at Euro ’96, that momentum builds during a tournament and it is not always those nations who get off to a “flier” who win it. Still, two wins from two – and another convincing one at that – would secure England’s status in the bracket of favourites.
France are already there, with the world champions beating Germany in Munich, and Italy have put in two emphatic performances. Belgium also showed their mettle in coming from behind against Denmark to also take six points so far. So, do England need a statement performance to reinforce their credentials? Southgate did not disagree.
“Certainly, what we’ve talked about all week is how do we get better?” he explained. “That’s always got to be the aim. When you’ve got the players for a longer period of time, you’ve got the chance to reflect back on the previous game and see the areas it’s possible to improve upon.
“You’re right, to go any distance in this tournament we are going to have to do that [get better]. We are seeing some excellent performances in the other games, not just from the likes of Italy and Belgium, who we know have been outstanding teams for a couple of years now, but we have to keep improving and we shouldn’t settle for what was a good performance the other day in what was one under the spotlight, with some players coming in the early stages of their international careers. But we know we can get better and have to get better.”
A convincing win – in score and performance – against Scotland would provide further evidence of that. With the temperature soaring, England coped superbly on Sunday against Croatia. It will be cooler at Wembley on Friday night but there will undoubtedly be a different kind of heat to deal with.