Preparing for a major tournament is a thankless task, even before you take into account a global health emergency.
So bloated are modern qualifying groups that elite nations such as England are rarely asked to play a truly top-class side in the two-year periods that traditionally separate summer finals.
Since the summer Nations League finals of 2019, for example, Gareth Southgate’s side have played 16 games.
England finally face a real test of their mettle when they take on Poland on Wednesday night
The Three Lions have rarely faced a tough challenge since the Nations League finals in 2019
Only two — home and away to Belgium — have been against a genuinely first-rate team. No wonder it can be difficult when a World Cup or Euros actually begins. The step up can prove challenging.
At Wembley, Poland are the opposition in England’s last competitive game before this summer’s Euros. At least they are ranked inside the top 20 in the world, at 19. A step up from last week’s mismatches against Albania and San Marino. The Poles may be missing their best player, centre forward Robert Lewandowski, and struggling with a Covid outbreak. But at least Southgate’s England can expect a challenge.
West Ham midfielder Declan Rice said: ‘There is no international break in April and the two games in June are warm-up games for the Euros so this is the last chance to put on a performance.
However, the Poles will offer a step up to the recent challenges of San Marino and Albania
For Southgate, the Wembley clash offers a final chance to look at his options first hand
‘No disrespect to San Marino and Albania but it will be a real step up and closer to opposition who we will be facing in the Euros. It is a chance to go out and make a statement.’
Rice, only 22, spoke well on England media duties on Tuesday. His manager says he has embraced the culture and demands of international football.
But to take Rice’s career with England in isolation is to see a little of the problem facing the modern player. Of his 13 starts, more than half have come against Iceland, Kosovo, Albania, Bulgaria and Montenegro. It is hard to gauge exactly what he learns from those games.
Wednesday — when he is expected to start — may be a little tougher and Southgate will hope so.
There is no international break and there are just two friendlies in June before the Euros
He has to pick a squad for the Euros before his players reconvene for two pre-tournament friendlies in June and it would be helpful to see them performing under a little pressure once again.
‘I’m excited to see the team play,’ said Southgate. ‘We can’t do anything about the way fixtures have played out. That’s why we’ve always got to drive performance and not just be satisfied that we’ve won matches.
‘We’re always reviewing how we can get better. We’re not sitting comfortably on what we’ve done. We have some really level-headed young players who will give themselves the best chance of success.
‘Someone like Declan is highly motivated — he wants to get better every time, he wants to learn. He is a sponge for information and we’ve got quite a few of those. And we’ve got senior players who are happy to share that information and help them develop.
There is a lot of expectation on Harry Kane but on the whole, Southgate has squad depth
The Poles, under boss Paulo Sousa, kept a clean sheet against Italy and are shrewd operators
‘It’s an environment I like. But we have to deliver, that’s the next challenge.’
Southgate pointed out this is not a team who approach the summer dependent on one player. There would be a heck of a hoopla if Harry Kane were to get injured late in the season, but, broadly speaking, Southgate is correct. This is a squad with depth in creative areas.
How England cope defensively is something we will be less sure about. On too few occasions are they really tested. It would, in all honesty, have been informative to watch Harry Maguire against Lewandowski but that is not to be.
The Poles are not spectacular opponents but they are serious enough. They are, for example, the only team in 21 matches to prevent Italy from scoring. They drew 0-0 with Roberto Mancini’s team last October.
Wednesday night’s game could give clues as to how both teams may fare in the Euros
Their qualification for the Euros came under coach Jerzy Brzeczek. Nevertheless, he was dismissed and replaced by the Portuguese Paulo Sousa in January.
This is a game that will go a long way to determine who tops World Cup qualifying Group I. In this messed up world football calendar, it may also provide us with clues as to how both teams expect to get on in this summer’s Euros.
Southgate gave up on ‘normal’ a long time ago. For example, he won’t see his team play again for more than two months after this.
He will wish them to win and win well.