With a place in France and top spot in their Euro 2016 qualifying group already secure, England go into Friday’s game against Estonia looking to take a penultimate step toward perfection. Roy Hodgson’s team were the first side to qualify for next year’s finals and can now become just the sixth side in history to reach the European Championship with a 100 percent record, and just the third to do so having won 10 out of 10.
It represents a morale-boosting recovery after the lows of a group-stage exit from the 2014 World Cup. Yet Hodgson is not getting carried away at the achievement of cruising through a group also containing Switzerland, Slovenia, Lithuania, San Marino, along with Estonia. And he won’t be doing so even if England triumph at Wembley on Friday before finishing out with three points in their final match at Lithuania next Monday. The veteran coach is instead more concerned about how his team fares in high-profile friendlies against France, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany over the next few months.
“We’ve still got an awful lot of work to do, against good quality opposition who will test us out to the ultimate extent,” Hodgson said in his pre-match press conference. “Those matches will maybe bring out some flaws in our game that we don’t always see in some of the fixtures we play.
“But we’re ready for that. We’re not deluding ourselves. We can be rightly proud of our achievements since the World Cup. We don’t need to hide our light under the bush in that respect, but we know there are big games ahead. I’m pleased the friendlies can be matches we can lose, defeats which might see us sink even further down the [FIFA] rankings, rather than wins against teams which won’t teach us everything we need to learn.”
Much of England’s strong qualifying form has rested on the goal-scoring form of captain Wayne Rooney, who has scored seven goals, four of them penalties. And the Manchester United star will be presented with a golden boot ahead of Friday’s match after netting a 50th goal for his country to break England’s all-time scoring record last month. But Rooney will have to watch both of England’s remaining qualifiers from the sidelines after suffering an ankle injury. Instead, Tottenham’s Harry Kane is expected to make his first competitive start for England.
While England may already be looking ahead, their opponents are still battling for their qualifying lives. Estonia are two points back of Slovenia in the battle for a playoff spot, although it would take an unlikely series of results to see them move up in the final two games. With matches at home to Lithuania and away to San Marino, Slovenia’s remaining fixtures are far kinder than those of Estonia, who must also host Switzerland on Monday.
A win is surely essential if Estonia are to maintain their faint hopes of reaching a first ever major championship. However, Magnus Pehrsson’s side lost 1-0 at home to England last October.
Kickoff time: 2:45 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Fox Sports 2