A low-jeopardy qualifier against Malta on a dreary November night is not for everyone, but it is a measure of England’s attraction that Wembley is a sell-out on Friday.
The Three Lions have already secured their place at Euro 2024 and, as much as Gareth Southgate insists they need the points to guarantee their seeding in Germany next summer, the game against the side ranked 171st in the world is effectively a dead-rubber, as well as a foregone conclusion.
There are, though, compelling reasons to want to be at Wembley for England’s final home game of 2023 and penultimate competitive fixture before the Euros.
Maiden call-ups for Rico Lewis, Londoner Ezri Konsa and Chelsea’s Cole Palmer have added intrigue to Southgate’s squad and, in the absence of injured pair Jude Bellingham and James Maddison, the England manager could experiment.
Conor Gallagher, Palmer and Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold are all candidates to fill in at No10, while Kalvin Phillips is unavailable, also freeing up a space in a deeper role.
Without the sidelined John Stones, Crystal Palace’s Marc Guehi is expected to get another chance to stake his claim as England’s next best centre-back, and the final spot in the front three next to Harry Kane and Bukayo Saka is still up for grabs, with Marcus Rashford, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish jostling for position.
Friday’s match is England’s first since the passing of Sir Bobby Charlton, so it promises to be a poignant Wembley occasion. Another reason to be interested is a rare opportunity to watch one of the best players in the world in action in this country.
Harry Kane has made an incredible start to life at Bayern Munich this season (Getty Images)
As Southgate pointed out last week, it is easy to take Kane for granted, but since the England captain swapped Tottenham for Bayern Munich, he has slipped out of the everyday consciousness of many.
There is a general awareness that Kane is still scoring at an exceptional rate, but his countless goals and outstanding all-round game are no longer as visible to those who do not watch the Bundesliga regularly.
Kane lacks the stardust of previous England poster-boys, so it is sometimes easy to forget that he is a generational player, whose record for the national team — 61 goals in 87 appearances and counting — is unlikely to be beaten in our lifetimes.
Most Spurs fans knew Kane would hit ridiculous numbers in a functional team but, even so, his start at Bayern has exceeded all expectations.
He has scored 21 goals in 15 appearances in the Bundesliga and Champions League so far, as well as chipping in with seven assists, and has already broken a host of records.
If he stays fit, the 30-year-old will go into the Euros with numbers comparable to peak Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, which he has always believed possible. The chance, then, to watch Europe’s deadliest finisher is a good reason to be engaged in even the most mundane-looking fixture.
The same is true for Bellingham, although the Real Madrid midfielder will miss Friday’s game and Monday’s visit to North Macedonia with a shoulder injury.
England stars have played overseas before, but never have comfortably the nation’s two best been based abroad, which gives fans further reason to invest in Southgate’s team.
England vs MaltaThree players hoping to impress
Opportunities for Tomori have been few and far between since he made his England debut four years ago to the day in a win over Kosovo.
Since then, the AC Milan centre-back has won just three further caps, despite consistently impressing in Italy.
He is in line for another chance on Friday, albeit out of position at right-back, and the number of injuries to other defenders leaves him with a good shot of making the Euros as it stands.
Harry Maguire’s return to the Manchester United team has decreased Guehi’s chances of forcing his way into Gareth Southgate’s first XI, but the Crystal Palace player remains England’s first reserve at centre-back and should have another opportunity to impress on Friday, with John Stones injured.
Guehi is enjoying another fine season and appears a shoo-in for the Euros after missing out on a World Cup place a year ago.
Alexander-Arnold’s chances of making the squad as a right-back probably hinge on Reece James’s availability, with the Chelsea man, Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier all ahead of him in the pecking order.
He may have a better chance to force his way in as a creative midfielder and is set to have another chance to show what he can do there on Friday.
He played there and scored in the reverse fixture, arguably his best England display.
Bellingham is assured a place in England’s starting XI at the Euros, and whoever fills in as the most advanced midfielder on Friday will essentially be auditioning to be his understudy.
With Malta set to sit off England and try to frustrate the hosts, the role of midfield lock-picker is likely to be an important one, and England may have to be patient.
Bellingham also missed the reverse fixture in June, leading to a start for Alexander-Arnold in midfield and, arguably, his best performance in an England shirt. Wearing No10, the Liverpool full-back scored an outstanding 25-yard strike in a comfortable 4-0 win, and his incisive passing was dangerous.
Gallagher has also impressed Southgate this week as he pushes for only a second competitive start, though has missed some training after picking up a knock in Chelsea’s thrilling draw with Manchester City at Stamford Bridge last Sunday.
That said, Kane’s ability to drop deep and dictate play means he is likeliest to be England’s biggest creative force, as well as primary goal threat, while Bellingham is missing. Watching him should be worth the admission fee alone.