Gareth Southgate wants absentee-hit England to make amends for last month’s poor performance against Hungary and all but wrap up World Cup qualification by showing their quality against Albania.
A sell-out crowd will flock to Wembley on Friday evening for the final home match of a mammoth international year that saw the Three Lions fall to an agonising Euro 2020 penalty shootout loss to Italy.
England should have another shot at a first trophy since 1966 in Qatar next winter given they boast a three-point cushion over nearest rivals Poland with just two Group I games to go.
A trip to minnows San Marino provides the ideal final opposition after Friday’s match against obdurate Albania, who Southgate expects a response against following their below par display in last month’s home draw with Hungary.
“I don’t remember saying we underestimated them,” the England manager said of the shock 1-1 Wembley draw.
“Hungary came and defended really well. We didn’t play at the level we’ve hit this calendar year.
“We’ve had a good focus this week on making sure we’re on the front foot in the game and making sure that our pressing is better than it was that night and making sure we’re sharp with the ball and move it quickly.
“These teams are well organised and you’ve got to break down a packed defence. Our quality has got to come to the fore.
“But if you can win the ball higher up the pitch you can catch them when they are perhaps a little bit disorganised. They are things that we’ve had a good training week to focus on.”
England’s preparations have, though, been impacted by a number of withdrawals and doubts.
Marcus Rashford and James Ward-Prowse were followed in withdrawing from the squad by Declan Rice on Wednesday, while Luke Shaw and Mason Mount have still yet to link up with the group.
“Well, training has been very good,” Southgate said. “We’ve obviously had quite a few players had to withdraw from the squad but we’re used to dealing with that.
“It’s never straightforward and we’ve just got on with it. I don’t think anybody here would have felt anything unusual in the way we’ve prepared.
“I’ve been really happy with the level of training and the attitude of the players and we’re looking forward to the game tomorrow.”
Asked if Shaw and Mount would miss the San Marino match as well as the clash with Albania, Southgate said: “Well, I’ve got to check in with our medical staff for today’s update.
“Obviously, the longer it goes the less likely that is. Different situations, really.
“Mason’s got to recover from this dental surgery. With Luke, there’s obviously very strict guidelines on concussion markers and I know in the early part of the week the first day he didn’t pass the marker, so that all gets shifted back.
“So, rightly, we’ve got to follow the guidelines on that. We might run out of time. We’ll just have to see.”
There is better news in regard to Jack Grealish, who Southgate says is “ready if required” having trained with the group on Thursday after illness interrupted the start of his week.
Uncapped Arsenal midfielder Emile Smith Rowe also provides an exciting option having been brought up from the England Under-21s squad following the initial withdrawals.
“I think we’ve brought him here to be involved with the team, and with a view to being involved in the two matches,” Southgate said. “He’s settled really well.
“He obviously knows a couple of his club team-mates, Phil (Foden) from when he was in the U17s, and this is a group that makes young players and new players very welcome.
“So I don’t think it’s a difficult environment to fit in. His quality has been apparent in the way he’s trained. So he’s ready, and we’ve enjoyed having him with us this week already.”
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