England need just a point from San Marino to reach the 2022 World Cup but Gareth Southgate insists he will treat the side ranked lowest in the world with the same respect as any other opponent, having hinted Harry Kane could start on Monday night.
The Three Lions captain hit a hat-trick in Friday’s 5-0 win over Albania, which leaves England top of Group I and requiring a draw in San Marino to qualify for next winter’s finals in Qatar.
Collecting the match ball also had Kane moving level with Jimmy Greaves on 44 goals for England – just nine behind Wayne Rooney’s all-time record.
Kane was an unused substitute in the home win over San Marino and also warmed the bench for both World Cup qualifiers against Andorra, coming on to score in the 4-0 home victory in September.
Now, though, with the record moving into sight, Kane will be keen to take his chance against the team ranked 210th and last in the world – and Southgate has refused to rule out starting his skipper in San Marino.
“With Harry, I don’t think it would be right to treat this game any differently to any other by giving you the team,” Southgate replied when asked if Kane would start.
“But, for sure, he is keen to play. He wants to play. We have got to make sure we get this game won and we still have to try to qualify for the World Cup.
“I said that I would treat San Marino with the respect that I would treat every other opponent. I won’t name the team.
“When we are picking a team, no matter what the opponent, we are always thinking about having the right balance, leadership … in any game, if you don’t have the right leaders on the pitch and you don’t start the game well, then it can lead to anxiety and if you have not got enough experience around, that can lead to unnecessary difficult moments.
“We are going to make some changes but also we haven’t qualified for the World Cup and whenever you are bringing players into the team you want stability as well so that, ideally, those players can flourish and everybody is clear on their roles and responsibilities.
“In particular, we always want strong leadership on the pitch. I think it’s very important any team that you field we are playing for England. We have set a very high standard of performance the other night and we have got to continue that into tomorrow.”
Southgate appeared at his pre-match media conference alongside Wolves defender Conor Coady – who will start in San Marino and had been tipped to skipper the side.
However, asked if Coady would start and wear the captain’s armband, Southgate’s response was vague: “He’s a starter,” he told BBC Radio 5Live.
“I think it is important, a game like tomorrow, we have set a benchmark in terms of the performance the other night and we know the expectation is to win comfortably.
“We know that we have got the quality to do that but you have to go and deliver it and to have leadership on the pitch and to have the right balance of characters and positional balance is just as important for a game against the team at the bottom of the group as it is against the teams at the top.”
An impressive 39 of Kane’s 44 England goals have come in competitive fixtures, that in itself is a record, and 90 minutes against San Marino would present a fine chance to move closer to Gary Lineker (48), Sir Bobby Charlton (49) and Rooney (53) on the all-time goalscorers list.
Asked if he owed Kane a start after resting him in the previous matches against the Group I minnows, Southgate replied: “Well, he’s quick to let me know that he hasn’t played in those games!
“Of course, there’s a balance for us because one of the strengths over the last few years is that we’ve had a really strong squad mentality.
“We’ve wanted to make sure that people that are with us get the opportunities to play, the guys that have perhaps been starting in some of the bigger matches during the summer in particular, recognise that they also have a role to support everybody else when the time’s right.
“When you have a squad, it is so important that those that aren’t starting support the team that are. So, I think that’s a good process for everybody in the squad to experience.
“But, equally, we want to make sure that the team we start with tomorrow, is a statement that we’re here to do business, that we’re taking this very seriously, we’re not qualified yet.
“We want a strong performance, we’ve got thousands of England fans travelling and we must put on a performance that underlines all of the facts I’ve just spoken about.”
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