England are heading to Belgium for a key Nations League clash against the top-ranked side in world football.
Here, the PA news agency picks out five of the main talking points ahead of Sunday’s Group A2 encounter in Leuven.
England must beat the Belgians again
Gareth Southgate’s ever-evolving England followed up their memorable run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals by reaching the inaugural Nations League finals the following year. The Three Lions’ hopes of reaching the second edition faded with their shock 1-0 home loss to Denmark last month, meaning they head to Belgium needing to secure another victory against Roberto Martinez’s star-studded side. That impressive 2-1 comeback win against Belgium will give them hope, with Southgate’s men knowing anything less will mean they are out of contention with Wednesday’s match against relegated Iceland to come.
Memorable 50th cap for Kane?
Harry Kane was reduced to a watching brief as England kicked off this month’s triple-header with a comprehensive 3-0 friendly victory against the Republic of Ireland on Thursday. The 27-year-old will return to the starting line-up on Sunday, when he will bring up half a century of caps for his country. England skipper Kane has netted a remarkable 32 times since making his debut in March 2015 and the World Cup Golden Boot winner will have a key role to play if his side are to beat Belgium.
The challenges brought by coronavirus are creaking up as we head towards Christmas, with the illness currently having a bigger impact on football than when Project Restart got under way in the summer. Wolves captain Conor Coady is the latest to be impacted, having been ruled out of England’s final group matches after contact with somebody that has tested positive. On another coronavirus-related note, this match had to be moved from Brussels to Leuven due to the enhanced restrictions brought in to curb infection rates in the Belgian capital.
Coping with defensive absentees
Coady looked set for a starting role in Belgium after impressing in England’s back three – little surprise given years of playing in that system at Wolves. Joe Gomez, too, would have surely started in Leuven had the Liverpool defender not sustained a serious knee injury in training that puts his European Championship availability in jeopardy. Those absentees are compounded by the suspension of Manchester United defender Harry Maguire, who skippered the Three Lions against Ireland, and impressive young Chelsea full-back Reece James. England boss Southgate is confident he still has the options at his disposal to cope but the absentees are an issue.
Can England halt Red Rom?
England’s makeshift backline will be tested by Belgium’s array of stars. Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne will be looking to pick holes in a defence that will have their hands full against Romelu Lukaku, who is in outstanding form at international level. The former Manchester United striker has regained his mojo since joining Inter Milan, with Belgium’s all-time top scorer netting a brace in last month’s win against Iceland to take his international tally to 55 goals. Having also scored a spot-kick against England in October, the 27-year-old could well add to that record haul on Sunday.