England will expect to continue their smooth progress toward the European Championships in two years’ time when hosting minnows San Marino at Wembley on Thursday. Following the massive disappointment of failing to get out of their group at the 2014 World Cup, England’s qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 got off to a perfect start when winning 2-0 in Switzerland last month. The result eased considerable pressure on coach Roy Hodgson and means England have already successfully negotiated what was on paper their toughest match in Group E. Unsurprisingly, Hodgson is planning on keeping faith with the bulk of the players who triumphed in Basel.
“The players have prepared vigorously and training has been excellent,” he said, per the English Football Association’s official website. “I haven't noticed any difference in preparation for this game and the next one [against Estonia on Sunday] than what we did against Switzerland. I have not told the team my plans yet so I couldn't possibly announce it now. I'm not planning wholesale changes and I would like to keep that momentum going from the last match and the players who did a good job against Switzerland deserve further confidence.”
Much of the talk leading up to the announcement of the squad was over whether Daniel Sturridge would be included. The Liverpool striker was injured ahead of the match in Switzerland, much to the dismay of his club boss Brendan Rodgers, and is expected to return after the international break. His absence is likely to mean another opportunity for Danny Welbeck to add to the two goals he scored in Switzerland.
And playing in behind him is expected to be the new Arsenal man’s former Manchester United teammate Wayne Rooney. The England captain will not play at all for his club in October having been sent off in United’s victory over West Ham at the end of last month. An extra reason for Rooney to relish taking the field for his country is that he is closing in on moving up the list of England’s all-time leading goalscorers. Rooney currently stands on 41, eight behind record holder Bobby Charlton with 49 and just three behind the man third on the list, Jimmy Greaves.
“I haven't gone out of my way to look at the record, but there is no denying it's there,” Rooney said, according to theFA.com. “If I can overtake Jimmy Greaves that will be great, but I'm not going into the games thinking about it - if I can score goals that's great, but the most important thing is to win the games.”
Rooney and England will certainly expect to be among the goals against a team ranked 208th and joint last in the FIFA rankings. San Marino also came up against England in the qualifying for the last World Cup, when they fell to a 5-0 defeat at Wembley before going down 8-0 in the reverse fixture. They began their qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 with a 2-0 home loss to Lithuania. While making it to France is not a realistic ambition for San Marino, it should already be a mere formality for England. The competition’s expansion to 24 teams means the top two from a group that also includes Slovenia and Estonia -- who England visit on Sunday – will qualify automatically, while the third will go into a playoff.
Fabian Delph, who made his England debut last month, has recovered from a knock that forced him to miss training earlier this week. Swansea City’s Jonjo Shelvey and Southampton’s Nathaniel Clyne could make their debuts on Thursday.
Prediction: While it was nothing sensational, England put in a good, solid performance to achieve a fine result in Switzerland. It was made all the more impressive given what happened at the World Cup and a lackluster performance in a friendly against Norway. No matter which version of England is seen against San Marino they will get a win; it just remains to be seen by how much and whether they can put on a performance to impress those in attendance at Wembley. After a potentially slow start against a San Marino team that will pack every player deep behind the ball, the goals should flow.
England 5-0 San Marino
Kickoff time: 2:45 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Fox Sports 1