The Three Lions breezed through qualifying unbeaten, but who will make the plane to Russia as a success-starved nation goes in search of global glory?
England once again made light work of a qualification campaign as they eased their way to Russia, but tougher tests now lie ahead.
The finals draw has been relatively kind to the Three Lions – having been placed in Group G alongside Belgium, Panama and Tunisia – but recent struggles at major competitions suggest nothing can be taken for granted.
Gareth Southgate, then, must piece together a winning formula which makes his side both entertaining and competitive – qualities which have been sadly lacking at times – but who will get the nod when the final 23-man shortlist is drawn up and tickets on the plane handed out?
We will be a step closer to knowing who gets those calls on May 16, with the Football Association having set that as the date on which a preliminary squad will be announced.
ON THE PLANE
Everton’s Jordan Pickford and Stoke’s Jack Butland are dead certainties for being picked in the 23-man squad, with Pickford the favourite to start between the sticks in Russia.
Starting berths across the back four appear to have been sewn up if everybody is fit, with Manchester City’s John Stones and Leicester’s Harry Maguire the favoured options at centre-half.
Danny Rose will likely be selected as the go-to option at left-back, with his former Tottenham team-mate Kyle Walker having impressed following a big-money move to Manchester City to nail down the right-back spot.
Jordan Henderson may not be to everybody’s taste, but Southgate is a big fan of the Liverpool midfielder and he will make the trip as a candidate to take the captain’s armband – or at least fill deputy duties.
Eric Dier has become an important figure for England in the midfield engine room and will definitely be handed another chance to grace a major finals, while Dele Alli will join his Spurs colleague despite seeing his form dip domestically this season.
Southgate has plenty of options to choose from in the forward areas, with Raheem Sterling’s renaissance at Manchester City guaranteeing him a place as the Three Lions cling to the hope that his standards can be maintained through to the summer.
Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford will also make the trip as a versatile option who possesses the pace to trouble the very best in the business, while Tottenham’s Harry Kane is arguably the finest striker on the planet and could skipper the team in Russia.
Leicester frontman Jamie Vardy can expect to complete his remarkable journey from non-league football as a back-up to Kane, with his speed and a keen eye for goal making him a useful option to have on the bench. His goalscoring form in 2018 has been fearsome, including two goals on the final Premier League matchday.
Burnley’s Nick Pope has emerged as a contender due to outstanding performances en route to qualifying for the Europa League in 2018-19 campaign.
The Guardian suggested on Tuesday that Pope would make the 23-man cut ahead of Joe Hart, whose poor form this season at West Ham has lost him his No.1 spot for the Three Lions.
Ryan Bertrand figured enough under Southgate during the injury-enforced absence of Rose to suggest that he will be the second left-back, with Manchester United’s Luke Shaw, his Old Trafford team-mate Ashley Young and West Ham’s Aaron Cresswell missing out.
On the right-hand side, Nathaniel Clyne has struggled for game time since returning to fitness at Liverpool, with Tottenham’s Kieran Trippier having edged ahead of him during a lengthy spell on the sidelines.
Michael Keane has not made the impact expected of him at Everton and may remain behind Chelsea’s Gary Cahill, while it would be a surprise if Phil Jones – as a man who can operate in a number of positions – does not make the plane despite recent criticism of his performances for Manchester United.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is another Southgate favourite but injury means he’ll play no part at Russia 2018. Reds colleague Adam Lallana will be in contention – providing he can avoid further knocks and recapture his best form.
Jesse Lingard has put himself back in the picture due to an impressive couple of months at Manchester United, while Fabian Delph looks to have claimed a midfield spot if reports are to be believed. The Manchester City utility man’s tactical versatility looks to have seen him make the cut ahead of Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere (whose tweet on Wednesday morning confirmed reports) and Chelsea’s Danny Drinkwater .
Danny Welbeck has offered enough to the England cause down the years to make him deserving of a ticket if he can steer clear of niggling injuries and find regular minutes at Arsenal, while a January move from the Gunners to Everton could help Theo Walcott to make a World Cup party for the first time since his surprise inclusion in Sven-Goran Eriksson’s 2006 squad.
There are not too many places left on the plane, but there are a few positions which could be snapped up.
Burnley’s Tom Heaton would need a minor miracle to get a call having missed most of the season through injury, while Southampton’s Fraser Forster has gone from potential squad member to no-hoper due to losing his form and first-team spot at St Mary’s.
Swansea City’s Alfie Mawson, Burnley’s James Tarkowski , Newcastle United leader Jamaal Lascelles , and Middlesbrough centre-half Ben Gibson are among the others who would need to see the path clear in front of him to make the cut, despite recent inclusions, with Manchester United’s Chris Smalling a more likely candidate to ask questions of Southgate.
Harry Winks is not generating the same kind of buzz at Tottenham as he was when handed his debut in October 2017, while Ross Barkley’s lack of action at Everton and fierce competition for places at Chelsea mean he will have to wait for another opportunity to prove that he can fulfil his undoubted potential.
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West Brom’s Jake Livermore and Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook have been mentioned as potential options in the centre of midfield, but there are better options available when everybody is fit and firing.
Southampton duo Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse may also have to wait a little longer, Newcastle’s Jonjo Shelvey remains far down the pecking order despite a clamour in the media for a call-up, while 2018 may be one major tournament too early for Crystal Palace loanee Ruben Loftus-Cheek – despite impressing in his senior outings to date – and highly rated Fulham teenager Ryan Sessegnon .
With so many deep-lying options available to Southgate – and the likes of Rashford and Welbeck being able to play down the middle if required – Bournemouth’s Jermain Defoe is likely to suffer World Cup heartache in the twilight of his career, Andy Carroll will be left behind at West Ham and Daniel Sturridge will need to focus on recovering full match sharpness following a difficult season at Liverpool and relegated West Brom.