Elland Road holds key for England’s World Cup hopefuls

KEY MOMENTS: England manager Gareth Southgate applauds the fans after the final whistle at Wembley�on Saturday. Picture: Tim Goode/PA
KEY MOMENTS: England manager Gareth Southgate applauds the fans after the final whistle at Wembley�on Saturday. Picture: Tim Goode/PA
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GARETH SOUTHGATE admits England’s Elland Road outing later this week will be key in finalising England’s World Cup plans.

The Three Lions return to the home of Leeds United on Thursday for the first time in a little over 16 years to tackle Costa Rica.

Extending an unbeaten run that currently stands at nine games would be welcome but Southgate’s priority going into his side’s final friendly before heading to Russia is to iron out any problems that were evident in the weekend win over Nigeria.

Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are also expected to be given one last chance to stake a claim to start against Tunisia in the World Cup group opener on June 18.

“In terms of Thursday, we have to pin down what we learned against Nigeria,” said the former Middlesbrough manager. “Also, what we do not need to see any more of and what exactly we do need to see ahead of the game on Thursday, which is our last opportunity to try some more things.

“Over the five friendlies (stretching back to November), we have been able to be a lot clearer in our mind in several areas.

“Now there might be a couple of players we want to see in certain positions against Costa Rica.”

England last played at Elland Road in March, 2002, Italy triumphing 2-1 in a friendly.

Sven Goran Eriksson used 21 players that night, Southgate being among those to play 45 minutes, as the countdown continued to a World Cup that saw the Three Lions bow out in the quarter-finals against Brazil.

There will be no repeat of that rapid turnover in personnel against Costa Rica, though Southgate was giving little away in terms of his team selection on Saturday night.

England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford: Chatting with Harry Kane and waiting for another start on Thursday.

England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford: Chatting with Harry Kane and waiting for another start on Thursday.

Asked if it was a straight duel between Cahill and Maguire for a place in the back three that England have adopted since qualification was assured, he replied: “I would not necessarily say it is either/or.

“They are both very experienced. Cahill has experience of big matches and maybe they could both play because there is competition for places right across that back line.

“Maguire has great composure, he is a player we really like, and he has had a super season (at Leicester City).”

England will train at St George’s Park today and tomorrow before heading north on Wednesday.

In terms of Thursday at Elland Road, we have to pin down what we learned against Nigeria. Also, what we do not need to see any more of and what exactly we do need to see ahead of the game on Thursday, which is our last opportunity to try some more things.

Gareth Southgate

After being left on the bench for the March double-header, Dele Alli will be hoping to get the nod after starting against Nigeria.

“I think he is a good player,” Southgate added about Alli, adopted as the pantomime villain by the visiting fans at Wembley for sticking with the country of his birth rather than that of his Nigerian-born father.

“It is not important about responding to whether he was in the team with us. Dele is always a player who is going to find a high level.

“As a goal threat, we want players in the team with a goal-scoring record. I always think back to Manchester United’s team with players right across midfield who are goal-scorers. It makes you so much more of a threat. In the end, the numbers tell a story and his are high.”

Jordan Pickford is another hoping the starting XI against Nigeria will act as a guide for the game with Tunisia in Volgograd in a fortnight’s time.

Again, Southgate was giving little away and even declined to say whether the one-time Bradford City loanee would start at Elland Road.

But, with Pickford having just three senior caps to his name, another outing would surely be beneficial going into the World Cup.

“Nothing has been confirmed yet,” said the Everton goalkeeper, vying with Jack Butland to start in Russia. “The manager said that in the pre-game talk, so I have just got to keep doing what I am doing, and putting in performances like I did at the weekend.

“Obviously, getting the nod against Nigeria was brilliant for myself because it is another cap ticked off and another solid performance. That is three good performances from the three games I have had.

“He hasn’t said (when the first choice goalkeeper will be named). Everyone can see the quality that is in the 23. Every player is fighting for every place.

“I am new to this. It is my first World Cup, but I have worked with the manager before at Under-21s level, so I think maybe he will tell us (who is the number one).

“But when that will be, I don’t know. We have three days training before the next game.”