English football has been dragged through the gutter once again after the recent controversy over Sam Allardyce, so a game against minnows Malta is just the tonic needed. The larger-than-life manager bit off more than he could chew in a murky sting operation by the English media, and it falls to Gareth Southgate to pick up the pieces.
As a long-time FA employee, Southgate is a steady pair of hands on a temporary basis while the top brass of the English game search for yet another new manager. The former England international has done a good job with the under-21 side, and although he ruled himself out for the top job when Allardyce got it, there are suggestions that the four games he presides over as caretaker manager will decide whether he has a future in the job.
Fortunately for him, he kicks off with a very ‘winnable’ game at Wembley against group outsiders Malta, before a tougher match away in Slovenia next Tuesday. After that come two marquee games in November, against Scotland in World Cup qualifying and Spain in a friendly.
England kick off at teatime on Saturday, but there are plenty of other matches over the next six days, and we’ve already earmarked three decent bets for Thursday night. Other teams to catch the eye on Friday and Saturday include Belgium and Poland, who both have home matches against big group rivals.
England v Malta
The players should be hurting at the moment after the England team has been branded a laughing stock in light of recent revelations. The insults come after the debacle at Euro 2016 which saw the end of Roy Hodgson’s reign as England were knocked out by Iceland. Scotland were 5-1 winners away in Malta in the first round of group matches, and Southgate will surely expect his side to come up with a similarly convincing result.
The squad of players has barely changed since that single Allardyce game, although Southgate has called up the Manchester United duo, Lingard and Rashford. Arsenal’s Oxlade-Chamberlain has been recalled, while Michael Keane and Andros Townsend have replaced the injured Glen Johnson and Raheem Sterling.
Wayne Rooney has been the subject of much debate about how he should fit into the side, but Southgate has retained England’s top scorer as captain and he looks set to play his part in the first eleven. Rooney hit back at the claims that Allardyce made that he ‘plays where he wants’, by insisting that he had followed instructions and Allardyce admitted his comments were a mistake. Perhaps too much has been made of Rooney’s role in the side, but whether you think he should stand aside or you subscribe to the view that his experience is vital, it’s likely to matter little against a side of Malta’s limited ability.
It’s eight defeats and three draws in the last eleven internationals for the Maltese, and they’ve been beaten 6-0 by the Czech Republic and 5-1 by Scotland in recent games. A Wembley match against England will be like a cup final for their players, but they should struggle on the big pitch under relentless English attacks. With the likes of Rashford, Antonio, Lingard, Oxlade-Chamberlain and the rejuvenated Walcott busting a gut to prove themselves, Southgate is not short of attacking options. Injury to Harry Kane probably means that Jamie Vardy will get the nod up front, and he’s done little wrong in any of his few performances in the national side.
If an early goal settles the nerves, England could go on comfortably to score four or five, and should have nothing to worry about at the other end.
Belgium v Bosnia & Herzegovina
Belgium picked up their first win under Roberto Martinez in the 3-0 victory in Cyprus, and they can follow up at -225 with Betfred when they take on Bosnia on Friday night.
Bosnia top the group courtesy of their 5-0 win over Estonia, and Greece are 2nd after beating Gibraltar 4-1. Belgium will be expected to top group H, and to do so they need to win games at home against their main rivals. Martinez has taken over a squad blessed with a huge amount of talent, and he was left in no doubt about the supporters’ expectations as they booed off his team after losing 2-0 at home to Spain in a friendly. The 3-0 win in Cyprus will have done a great deal to settle the nerves, and Romelu Lukaku – who scored twice in that game – is back to form for Everton in the Premier League.
Bosnia have had a good run of results against ‘lesser’ sides, but they were beaten in the play offs for Euro 2016 by Ireland last November, and lost 3-1 away in Spain in a friendly in May this year. It will be a backs-to-the-wall performance on Friday night, but one doubts they will be good enough to keep Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ at bay.
Poland v Denmark
The Poles were 2-0 up in Kazakhstan in the first round of qualifying games, only to let it slip and draw 2-2. That has put early pressure on them as group favourites, and they need to put it right here. Denmark top the section after a 1-0 win over Armenia, but a run of three straight wins with clean sheets probably flatters them.
Those victories have come against the aforementioned Armenia, Liechtenstein, and Bulgaria, but prior to that they’d finished 3rd behind Portugal and Albania in Euro 2016 qualifying, and lost the two-legged play off against Sweden. Poland won 4 and drew 1 of their five Euro qualification games, and they included a 2-0 victory over Germany. They also played well at the tournament in France, only going out to eventual winners Portugal on penalties in the quarter finals.
England -3 to beat Malta
Saturday 8th October, 17:00 GMT
Belgium to beat Bosnia & Herzegovina
Friday 7th October, 19:45 GMT
Poland to beat Denmark
Saturday 8th October, 19:45 GMT