Fitness, form worry England ahead of game against Italy


MILAN, Sep 22: The imminent prospect of relegation from the Nations League’s elite is unlikely to worry Gareth Southgate.
What might be troubling the England coach far more is the fitness issues, poor form or fragile club status of some of his key players two months out from the World Cup.
From the team that started the European Championship final against Italy last year, defenders Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw have been dropped by Manchester United and central midfielder Kalvin Phillips requires shoulder surgery and could miss the World Cup.
Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford is out injured, centre back John Stones has been playing as a right back for Manchester City, and midfielders Declan Rice and Mason Mount have been in underwhelming form for West Ham and Chelsea, respectively, in the first six weeks of the Premier League.
There’s plenty for Southgate to ponder, then, heading into matches against Italy – in Milan on Friday – and Germany – at London’s Wembley Stadium on Monday – in a Nations League group where England is in last place after two draws and two losses.
Another loss in Italy will see England drop into the second tier of the UEFA tournament, which will damage the pride of Southgate’s squad, if nothing else.
It’s the bigger picture – essentially, the World Cup – that is key for Southgate, and what he will effectively be judged on, with some critics having rounded on him after a shocking 4-0 home loss to Hungary in England’s last match. Southgate will want to see a reaction in the coming week.
“I’m not going to speak for the manager, but I’m sure he’s got certain players that are 100% to go to the World Cup, and then there’s obviously certain places and numbers that are still up for grabs,” England midfielder Jack Grealish said.
Nick Pope is likely to fill in for Pickford, who should be back soon after the international break, while Jude Bellingham might be favourite to replace Phillips.
Maguire is set to start, while Southgate has to choose between Shaw and Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell at left back, neither of whom have seen much game time recently.
“It is not ideal,” Southgate said of some of his key players not playing for their clubs, “but we feel they have been, and can be, important players for us. It is not a perfect situation but there is still a lot of football to be played before Qatar.”
Still in shock from failing to qualify for a second consecutive World Cup, European champion Italy is looking to regain some respect. That process could begin by reaching the Nations League’s Final Four.
Hungary lead on seven points, one more than Germany, and they meet in Leipzig on Friday. Italy is on five points and England has two.
For Germany, their World Cup preparations have been disrupted by the coronavirus, forcing coach Hansi Flick to improvise for tournament warmup games against Hungary and England.
Captain Manuel Neuer and Bayern Munich teammate Leon Goretzka were forced to leave the team’s hotel Wednesday after positive tests for COVID-19, while Borussia Dortmund midfielder Julian Brandt left with flu-like symptoms after testing negative for the virus.
Flick wanted his players to “get into tournament mode and be there from the start” this week. But instead, there’s a fear of further positive cases. Midfielder Jonas Hofmann said “the alarm bells are going off.”
Hoffenheim goalkeeper Oliver Baumann has been called up as a replacement for Neuer, though Barcelona’s Marc-André ter Stegen is likely to play against Hungary. Wolfsburg midfielder Maximilian Arnold is also a late addition to the squad. Flick is still aiming for top spot in Nations League Group A3 to ensure qualification for the finals next June. (AP)