England take on the Czech Republic at Wembley on Tuesday night in what is now a straight shootout to top Group D at this year’s European Championships.
After a lacklustre performance against Scotland, Gareth Southgate’s England side have come under pressure from fans, with selection and tactics being criticised following the 0-0 draw on Friday.
But the Three Lions remain in control of their own destiny with victory over the Czech’s ensuring they top Group D. A draw will see the Czech’s take top spot on goal difference and defeat for the English could see them finish third if Scotland beat Croatia and finish with a better goal difference. If Scotland fails to win, England will secure qualification regardless of how many goals Croatia score, as the head-to-head between the two World Cup semi-finalists will favour England, after beating the Croats 1-0 in the opening round.
Now that all the complicated permutations are out of the way, let’s look ahead to the Three Lions final group game against a Czech side that has impressed and surprised many so far.
The two sides were paired together in the qualifying section of this tournament with England topping Group A – six points ahead of the Czech’s who finished runners up. Southgate’s side came out firing in the opening game with a convincing 5-0 victory over the Czech’s at Wembley, as Raheem Sterling grabbed a hat-trick.
It wasn’t all easy going though, as the return fixture in Prague saw a much improved Czech side run-out 2-1 winners.
Patrick Schick is the Czech’s main threat, having netted all three of his side’s goals so far at the tournament, including a sensational strike against Scotland from 49 yards – the longest goal ever scored at a European Championships.
The Bayer Leverkusen striker will be looking to beat former Liverpool striker Milan Baros’ record of five goals at a Euros for the Czech’s, an achievement he claimed when top scoring in the 2004 edition of the competition.
In stark contrast, England’s current captain and lead striker, Kane, has yet to register a shot on target and the aforementioned Sterling – despite his goal against Croatia – looks way off the pace, leaving England fans frustrated that the likes of Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish have barely featured in attack.
Sancho has excelled for Borussia Dortmund this season, with the exciting winger netting 16 times in 38 games for the Bundesliga side and assisting 20 times, including 4 assists in the German cup, on route to claiming the trophy alongside Jude Bellingham – England’s youngest player to appear at a major finals.
There have been calls for Grealish to be in Southgate’s starting XI as well. The Aston Villa captain has had a good season with 18 goal contributions in 26 Premier League appearances in 2020/21.
Despite the form of two of England’s brightest talents, Southgate has continued with the tried and tested to somewhat mixed results.
If the England manager wants to win the fans back, then starting either of these two – if not both – would go a long way to appeasing fans prior to kick-off at Wembley.
Phil Foden has looked by far the best of the attacking options employed by Southgate at the championships and the prospect of playing the Premier League winner alongside Grealish and Sancho, as a false nine, is an option that excites but is unlikely to happen.
The former Middlesbrough coach has already stated that Kane will start and his insistence on playing Sterling, despite a lack of form, means Foden will likely be the one to miss out.
Whoever plays in attack for England will have to deal with a robust Czech defence, which includes the likes of Vladimir Coufal, who has had an exceptional season at right back for West Ham, Bristol City’s Tomas Kalas and Slavia Prague’s trio of Jan Boril, David Zima and Tomas Holes, who got to the quarter-finals of this season’s Europa League.
England’s own defence has impressed also, with Tyrone Mings deputising for the injured Harry Maguire and the Villa centre-back will be hoping he has done enough to keep Maguire on the bench.
Southgate seems to have been working hard on his defence and having used four fullbacks in two games, the former England defender seems to have a plan – at least defensively.
With the likes of Schick, who currently leads the goalscoring charts and Burnley’s Matej Vydra in attack, it will provide a stern test for England’s back line.
Coufal’s West Ham teammate and goalscoring midfielder, Tomas Soucek, is also a serious threat from midfield and will need to be closely marked at set pieces.
The Hammer scored 10 times for David Moyes’ side this campaign, helping secure European football and will be a key player for the Czech’s both with and without the ball.
Southgate may look to bring in the experience of Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson alongside Declan Rice for Kalvin Phillips, who struggled to replicate his sensational performance against Croatia.
With many options at Southgate’s disposal his team selection will be heavily analysed and criticised if England fails to get a win out of this one. On paper England should win comfortably and England fans may take some solace over the fact the Czech’s have never won at Wembley.
A draw may not be such a bad result though, as finishing second could mean avoiding the big hitters from Group F and see a second round tie against Slovakia or Sweden.
England 2-1 Czech Republic
Predicted Line ups
England: Pickford; Walker, Stones, Mings, Shaw; Rice, Henderson; Mount, Grealish, Sterling; Kane (4-2-3-1)
Czech Republic: Vaclik; Coufal, Celustka, Kalas, Boril; Holes, Soucek; Jankto, Darida, Krmencik; Schick (4-2-3-1)