England are closing in on their first major tournament under head coach Gareth Southgate and their World Cup 2018 preparations continue in earnest with this weekend’s friendly against Nigeria at Wembley Stadium.
The Three Lions will be eager to impress in their final match at the national stadium ahead of the trip to Russia, but they face a Super Eagles side whose young squad impressed on their way to the finals.
Southgate and his youthful, 23-man provisional World Cup squad will be hoping to make a statement of intent when Nigeria pay a visit to Wembley this weekend.
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One of two friendlies against Russia-bound opposition ahead of the finals, the game gives the Three Lions boss a chance to experiment with his lineup before the main event, and in turn, provides his players with the opportunity to stake a claim for the starting XI at the tournament.
Southgate has gradually imposed his own ideas and tactics on England since taking charge of the national team in November last year, such as a three-man defense and wingbacks with free reign to press further up the pitch, though it is unclear whether he plans to try other approaches against Nigeria.
Goals have been an issue for England of late, with the Three Lions having found the net six times in their last seven fixtures, but defensively, they have been solid and this has continued into Southgate’s tenure.
England have shipped just two goals in these games, dating back to their 2-1 victory over Slovakia in qualifying, a run which includes impressive shut-outs against World Cup favorites Brazil and Germany.
Despite being unbeaten in eight games, the Three Lions remain a work in progress under the former centre-back, and as such, expectations are somewhat lower ahead of Russia than they were for previous tournaments.
Southgate has shown faith in youth and ushered out some of England’s old guard – including goalkeeper Joe Hart and defender Chris Smalling – with his squad selection, but it remains to be seen whether he will field his strongest XI on Saturday or give prospects such as Ruben Loftus-Cheek a runout.
Following their 1-1 draw against Italy last time out, England finds themselves placed 13th in the FIFA World Rankings, and that result marked the third stalemate in four matches against teams ranked above them.
This hints at subtle progress under Southgate since the Three Lions have often struggled against higher-ranked sides, although that is a moot point where Nigeria is concerned since the Super Eagles are placed in 47th.
Nigeria are sure to provide a stern test for Southgate’s men when they travel to the UK capital this weekend.
The Super Eagles were stellar during World Cup qualifying, becoming the first African nation to book a place in the tournament in early October 2017 when a strike from Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi secured a 1-0 victory over Zambia.
That result gave them an unassailable 13-point lead at the top of Group B, dubbed Africa’s ‘group of death’ due to the inclusion of Algeria and continental champions Cameroon.
Like England, Gernot Rohr’s team are a young side full of energetic and talented prospects, although their form since World Cup qualification has dipped during a run of two wins in the last five internationals.
However, the Super Eagles’ away performances have been impressive during the last six month, as Rohr’s charges have won five of their last six on the road, a run which includes a 4-2 victory in Argentina.
There could be a number of Premier League stars out in force for the Nigerians, with Chelsea’s Victor Moses and Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho likely to play a part, along with the aforementioned Iwobi.
Meanwhile, former Blues midfielder John Obi Mikel, who now plays his football for Chinese club Tianjin TEDA, could take the captain’s armband against England.
Nigeria have one more pre-World Cup friendly lined up after the England game, in which they will face the Czech Republic, before they take on Argentina, Iceland and Croatia in the group stage of the competition.
While it is unclear whether Southgate is planning to field predominantly first-XI players at Wembley, the manager is expected to rest Liverpool duo Jordan Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold due to their involvement in the Champions League final against Real Madrid last weekend.
Manchester City’s Fabian Delph could take on a central midfield position in Henderson’s absence, partnering Eric Dier of Tottenham Hotspur in the engine room.
Everton’s Jordan Pickford has been tipped to be named as England’s first-choice goalkeeper for the World Cup finals, so he is likely to start ahead of Jack Butland and Nick Pope.
Southgate could stick with his three-man defence, meaning that Gary Cahill, Harry Maguire, and Kyle Walker are poised to start against the Super Eagles, although John Stones could also be involved in some capacity.
Captain Harry Kane is expected to spearhead the English attack, with support coming from Raheem Sterling.
Meanwhile, Former Watford striker Odion Ighalo is likely to lead Nigeria’s front line, playing off Iheanacho.
The Leicester man’s club teammate Wilfred Ndidi is expected to play a part at Wembley, along with fellow Premier League stars Moses and Iwobi.
Brighton & Hove Albion supporters could also catch a glimpse of their summer signing Leon Balogun in action in central defence.
England possible starting lineup:
Pickford; Walker, Cahill, Maguire; Trippier, Dier, Delph, Young; Alli, Sterling; Kane
Nigeria possible starting lineup:
Uzoho; Ebuehi, Troost-Ekong, Balogun, Idowu; Iwobi, Ndidi, Mikel, Moses; Iheanacho; Ighalo
Head To Head
England have faced Nigeria just twice before and have never lost to the Super Eagles.
Only one of those games was a competitive fixture – a 0-0 at the 2002 World Cup in the Far East while Sven-Goran Eriksson was in charge of the Three Lions.
England’s lone victory over the Africans came in a 1994 friendly at the old Wembley Stadium, in which David Platt scored the only goal in a 1-0 win.