So here we are England will seal their 6th successive World Cup appearance and 9th in the last 10 with a win at Wembley against Slovenia.
With a 5 point lead in Group F and a big goal difference advantage over the rest a point will almost certainly be enough. But against a side ranked 55th in the world a win at Wembley will be expected and for Gareth Southgate a perfect sign off on a successful qualifying campaign in front of 80,000 Home fans. But mess things up and a frosty night in Lithuania awaits to stumble over the line.
Despite their low ranking Slovenia gave England a rough time in a 0-0 draw in Ljubljana a year ago and sit only a point behind second placed Slovakia so arrive at Wembley with qualifying ambitions of their own. Their brightest star is Athletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak who’s impressed in Atheltico’s recent run of Champions League campaigns. Going forward the main creative threat will come from Serie A regular Josip Ilicic- who clocked up 100 appearances for Fiorentina before moving on to Atalanta this summer.
The draw Slovenia gained last year was the first time they managed to avoid defeat to England- losing the previous 4 meetings. The most notable being the final group match of the 2010 World Cup when Jermain Defoe stabbed home the only goal of the game and secured England’s only win of a largely awful campaign. More recently the sides met in the Euro 2016 qualifiers. England came from behind to win 3-1 at Wembley and then 3-2 in Slovenia when Jack Wilshere bagged a memorable second half brace.
Since the squad was announced last Thursday Fabian Delph and Phil Jones have been ruled out with injury whilst Dele Alli will serve his one match ban for flipping the bird in the Slovakia game last month. It’s a particular blow for Delph who was likely to play following his good run of form for Manchester City. But Delph’s injury is short term and he should be back for City when the Premier League resumes, he currently looks a key component to Pep Guardiola’s side so should get his chance in the November internationals.
The late call up to the squad is Tottenham’s Harry Winks who’ll be hoping to make his debut. Winks has been promoted from the Under 21’s and with Delph joining a lengthy injury list in midfield has been given his chance sooner than expected, but the talented young playmaker looks a confident player who may well grab his opportunity with both hands and it is good to see a young player with potential getting the late call up rather than a veteran with little upside.
There’s been no word yet on team selection but inevitably there’ll be a lot of focus on the goalkeepers. Southgate backed Joe Hart after his error against Scotland in the summer but then was partly to blame for Slovakia’s goal at Wembley. Southgate needs to give his other keepers a chance with at best 7 games remaining before the World Cup (assuming we make it!) I’d like to see Jack Butland given the start but I suspect the manager will stick with Hart.
Elsewhere the absence of Jones means a change in central defence- the favourite must be John Stones after a good start to the season with City and his ball playing skills should be a huge asset against a side likely to sit deep for long spells.
Slovenia will come looking for a point and hit on the break when they can. I expect England will score in the first half and should run out comfortable winners 2-0.