For the first time in 17 year, the oldest rivals in international soccer will lock horns in a competitive match on Friday as England and Scotland go head-to-head at Wembley in a crucial qualifier for the 2018 World Cup. As well as offering vital points on the road to Russia, the match could be decisive in the future of the two coaches.
Gareth Southgate was appointed as interim England coach last month following the stunning end to Sam Allardyce’s reign after just a single game in charge. Despite England being far from hugely impressive in a 2-0 home win over lowly Malta and a goalless draw in Slovenia in September, the conventional wisdom is that if England gets a credible result against its rival to the north on Friday then Southgate will be handed the reins on a permanent basis.
It is as much a reflection of the lack of options elsewhere as it is resounding faith in the former England Under-21 coach. Still, Southgate insists he does not go into Friday’s game focusing on his own future.
“I don’t view any game in that way,” he said ahead of the match. “I have leadership responsibilities, of course, for the team and on a broader level, but the game is not about me. Football is about those who play and pay and that is about right so, 100 percent, my focus is on the match. It would be irresponsible and unprofessional for it to be any other way.”
Southgate has already made one big personnel decision ahead of the match, announcing that Wayne Rooney will be in the starting lineup as captain. England’s record goal-scorer started on the bench against Slovakia last time out.
“Wayne will be captain,” Southgate said. “It was an easy decision. He is better placed than he was for the last get-together in terms of his sharpness and confidence, and I think he is an experienced player for a game like this.
“He is playing well. He has played in the last couple of matches for Manchester United and he is a player that when he is in a rhythm of playing that helps. So he is confident and I think experience in a game like this is important. This is a team that has a lot of energy and potential, but you need some experience around it as well.”
England goes into the game top of World Cup qualifying Group F, with seven points from three games. With Scotland down in fourth on four points, the margin for error is much smaller for both Scotland and manager Gordon Strachan.
For the former Celtic coach, the early momentum after taking charge in 2013 has faded and a home draw with Lithuania together with a 3-0 defeat in Slovakia last month has already left Scotland up against it in its attempt to qualify for a first major tournament since the 1999 World Cup.
The last time the two sides met, England ended Scotland’s hopes of making it to Euro 2000 in a playoff, even though the Scots earned a famous second-leg victory at Wembley.
Prediction: It is hard to think of the two teams ever having met at a lower ebb in their long history. Scotland has been struggling to produce talented players for a getting on two decades, while the cupboard is also fairly bare for England, both in terms of players and coaching options. Thus the quality of play on show at Wembley on Friday is unlikely to be particularly impressive. But it should at least have some intensity and that could suit Scotland to rise to the occasion and grab a point.
Predicted Score: England 1-1 Scotland