For England, this is unusual territory, an away game on neutral soil. Apart from that, nothing changes. Eyes are already on next summer’s Euros in Germany, a summer from which something tangible really must be taken.
Here in west Poland, Wroclaw’s Tarczynski Arena acts as a temporary home for the football refugees of Ukraine. There will be no advantage for England in that, however. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians live in this part of Poland and the stadium will radiate blue and yellow when this Euro 2024 qualifier kicks off at 6pm local time.
England do not really need to win. Four wins from four in Group C have put Gareth Southgate and his improving team in control. What matters is what happens in Germany next summer. Southgate has told his players it is time to deliver and that rhetoric is not going to change. ‘We were finalists last time and felt in the World Cup we played very well and lost to one of the best two teams in the world,’ said Southgate last night.
‘We know there’s the possibility for this team to get better as well. We’ve got evidence over a long period of time that we should have that belief. Of course, you’ve got to go and deliver it, and a lot can happen in terms of availability of players and everything, but for us that has to be the long-term aim.
‘The nice thing is that, for some players, it will probably be their last chance to win something, some will be at their peak and some have still got space to grow.
Gareth Southgate has told his players that it is time to deliver with the Euros next year
His players are currently preparing for a qualifying clash with Ukraine on Saturday night
‘I don’t see the team falling off a cliff after the next tournament. There’s enough youngsters that still have their best years ahead of them, in fact, so it’s a good balance.’
It is strange to think that a year ago, England were in something approaching disarray. A 3-3 home draw from Germany that was even more chaotic than it sounds in late September took Southgate’s winless sequence to six games. We know now that the England manager already had it in mind to quit after the World Cup in Qatar that followed.
Yet here we were last night in Poland talking to a manager about winning next summer’s Euros, a manager who seems to have left his previous fancy for a three-man central defence in the dust and moved on with a rather bolder and more assertive approach.
It is not Southgate’s nature to talk in such black and white terms. But when asked whether the improvement in his team over the last year has given him the courage to be more adventurous in his own approach, he did not demure.
‘The job is to get the best out of the players you have,’ he replied. ‘The quality of the players determines the best way to go and get a result in certain games.
‘When we started a long time ago we didn’t have the quality of wide players we have now. Our midfield in Russia in 2018 was Hendo (Jordan Henderson), Dele (Alli) and Jesse (Lingard). So we have different types of players coming through now. We have depth in certain positions, more experience in terms of our defenders.
Ukraine have been forced to play their international fixtures outside their homeland due to the Russian invasion but the Tarczynski Arena will be an imposing venue for England
‘We have been pretty clear since before Qatar of how we want to go about it and the evolution of certain players has helped that to look even better.
‘There is definitely belief. They definitely have huge desire. They have had a lot of success at club level and for a lot of them the missing piece is something with England, which they know would be bigger than anything else they have achieved.
‘The whole group are determined on that. They are really responsive and I can’t speak how highly we feel to be able to work with them every day.
‘We never have to walk on the training pitch and criticise the levels or question the attitude towards the training. So the key is to transfer that on to the pitch. We have to do that again here.’
England could be qualified for the 2024 Euros by the end of their friendly against Scotland on Tuesday if results go their way and they beat Ukraine
If England win against Ukraine and other results go their way, they could even be qualified for next summer’s finals by the time they walk off the field at the end of their friendly against Scotland at Hampden Park on Tuesday. If there are reservations, they continue to revolve around England’s ability to defend against the really top nations. That is a test that will have to wait a while.
With the ball, on the other hand, England continue to improve. Jude Bellingham’s opening chorus at Real Madrid hints at further high notes to come and it is staggering to think that he is only 20 years old.
Bellingham — until recently a Borussia Dortmund player — and England captain Harry Kane, now of Bayern Munich, will be on familiar territory next summer.
They are a part of team that will travel heavy with expectation. As we said, nothing changes.