LONDON • England have begun their preparations for next year's football World Cup by pencilling in a series of friendlies against Italy, Brazil and Germany, the three most successful nations in the history of the competition.
As Gareth Southgate prepares to lead his team into today's qualifier against Slovakia, when a win at Wembley will all but confirm their qualification for next summer's tournament in Russia, the Football Association is already putting in place the arrangements for England's warm-up matches.
A friendly against the Netherlands in Amsterdam has also been scheduled after Southgate told the FA that he wanted a run of challenging fixtures before the World Cup in Russia.
"We want to test ourselves against really good teams," Southgate said. "We have to get Monday right first. If we get Monday right we are in a fantastic position and, after that, we have to play the best and really test ourselves."
With three games remaining, unbeaten England lead Group F by two points from Slovakia and victory today would almost certainly secure at least a play-off spot for next year's Finals in Russia.
England will then need just two points from their last two games to secure automatic qualification.
Southgate said it would be dangerous to underestimate Slovakia.
"They've had a super result (beating Slovenia 1-0) and our matches with them have been really tight, first at the Euros and then in Slovakia when it took us until the last minute (to score the winner)," he said. "They are strong, proud and have good players like Marek Hamsik who can hurt you. But it's a fantastic opportunity for us - a home game, and if we get the right result we are virtually in Russia."
However, his side will have to fashion a win in better style, after they were flattered by a late flurry of goals in Friday's 4-0 win in Malta, a performance that was accompanied by expletive-sprinkled jeers from their watching supporters.
"He hasn't got the blend of his team right, he hasn't got the shape of his team right to what he wants, but that requires work," former England captain Terry Butcher told the BBC.
Getting that correct blend would no doubt spark the imagination of supporters wearied by years of under-achievement.
"I've seen it happen (fans turning on the team)," Southgate said, aware that England required a 96th-minute winner from Adam Lallana to beat Slovakia in last September's fixture, a game played under previous England manager Sam Allardyce. "From our point of view, we have to focus on sticking to the plan, staying calm.
"I understand that, if we don't score until late, the game feels different for everybody."
Victory on Friday left Slovakia with a four-point cushion over Scotland and Slovenia, but, although confidence is high, right-back Peter Pekarik knows Slovakia's momentum could quickly disappear.
"We're very close to the place that would take us into the play-offs," said the Hertha Berlin defender. "The mood is great, but it's important to realise there's a completely different match awaiting us. We have seen lots of England's home games and they have amazing quality. But we will fight."
THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
ENGLAND V SLOVAKIA
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