England set to cruise; Italy face must-win mission

LONDON • With England needing only a point and facing whipping boys San Marino today, the Three Lions are a shoo-in to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Their opponents have never won a competitive game and lie bottom of Group I, scoring just once and conceding 36 times in nine games.

As such, England boss Gareth Southgate plans on making wholesale changes against the world's lowest-ranked football side, with an eye on experimenting and giving his big-name players a rest.

Mason Mount and Luke Shaw are set to miss out again as they recover from a tooth infection and a head injury respectively, and the likes of Aaron Ramsdale and Emile Smith Rowe could make their international bows in the micro-state today.

"Yes, we will make quite a few changes (for San Marino) but what we've done well in the past is sustain good performances, even with those changes," Southgate said.

"Although it was one of the more experienced teams we've fielded (against Albania), we still had a lot of exciting young talent out there."

Harry Maguire is also likely to be rested, but Southgate took pains to back the defender, who has come in for plenty of criticism this season after a series of indifferent performances for Manchester United.

Maguire was one of England's goalscorers against Albania but he came in for plenty of flak from pundits and netizens with his over-exuberant celebrations, which came off as a riposte to his detractors.

On the 28-year-old putting his fingers to his ears, former United captain-turned-pundit Roy Keane repeatedly described the celebration as "embarrassing", while former England forward Jermain Defoe said the celebration left a "sour taste in people's mouths".

Maguire has since claimed that it "wasn't directed at no one" and Southgate also called on his critics to lay off.

"Is he a Hulk Hogan fan? I don't know what the celebration was for. He's a fabulous player... he was in the Euros team of the tournament," Southgate said.

"He's rushed back because he's the sort of player who has a huge conscience to help his club. You get lots of players who hide in the treatment room when pressure is on.

"He hasn't done that and I have massive respect for that, but you can go into matches not fully fit and you're judged as fully fit in those moments."

While England can change all 11 of their starters against Albania for San Marino and still afford to take it easy, the same cannot be said about Italy, whom they lost to in the final of Euro 2020.

Already hit by a series of withdrawals, including captain Giorgio Chiellini and Ciro Immobile, in the build-up to their final two Cup qualifiers, the European champions have lost a further three players in Cristiano Biraghi, Alessandro Bastoni and Davide Calabria, for today's trip to Northern Ireland.

Italy lead Switzerland at the top of Group C on goal difference with one match remaining and a single guaranteed spot for Qatar.

The Swiss, however, have an easier game on paper at home to eliminated Bulgaria. Northern Ireland are also out of contention but are always tricky, physical opponents when playing at home in Belfast.

After failing to reach the 2018 World Cup in Russia, falling to Sweden over two legs, the prospect of another play-off draw will bring back bad memories.

Azzurri coach Roberto Mancini knows his team are facing a must-win game at Windsor Park, tweeting before their trip: "We have to go to the World Cup."


Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2021, with the headline England set to cruise; Italy face must-win mission. Subscribe