England are a point away from qualification for Germany 2024 but the headlines are dominated by a senior England player’s decision to play football in a country where same-sex relationships are illegal.
Jordan Henderson was booed by some of his own supporters at Wembley on Friday. Gareth Southgate says he will “100 per cent” keep selecting him.
It was another robust defence of one of his key players from the England manager, just as it was for Harry Maguire when he was barracked and mocked by Scotland supporters last month.
The difference this time is Henderson’s abuse is coming from his own supporters, who are angered by what they perceive as hypocrisy. Henderson’s historical vocal support for the LGBTQ+ community then saw him move to Saudi Arabia where being gay can see you flogged and given life imprisonment.
For the first time, Southgate admitted he understood the motivation of those supporters in abusing the former Liverpool man but he was categorical in pointing out he felt the booing is wrong.
So, how much is this all a distraction for England, ahead of a crucial game against Italy? Not much, in my opinion.
Southgate says this team is different from the one that lost on penalties to Italy in the Euro 2020 final. It’s more experienced and battle-hardened.
As a result, the squad is even more tightly knit, bound together by a determination to win something, having come close in the last three major tournaments. England know that a draw against Italy will be enough to guarantee their place at next summer’s finals.
Henderson remains a genuine option for England in this game, whether that is from the start or off the bench.
I expect Southgate to revert to type and go with the experienced, tried-and-trusted and the more defensively-minded approach. That has been his philosophy whenever England have come up against strong opposition, at any stage of the squad’s progression.
Jordan Pickford will return in goal. Kyle Walker will play at right-back. Harry Maguire will be at centre-back. Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice will anchor the central midfield. Harry Kane will return as captain and lead the line up front.
The most undecided positions are alongside Maguire in the centre of the defence and who will be the third central midfielder.
With regards to the latter, much depends on the role Bellingham is asked to play. He’s been pushed further up the field this season by Real Madrid – a decision that has paid dividends, with a return of 10 goals and three assists already.
If he does the same at Wembley, expect Southgate to opt for a more disciplined midfielder to share the defensive duties with Rice.
Either way, it will be a professional, maybe even workmanlike, performance from England against Italy. Unapologetically, the result is all that matters.
Walker said he wants to win the game but he wouldn’t be upset if it was a dour 0-0 in front of a full house at Wembley. Southgate said similar. If the scoreline is level with a few minutes to go, he won’t be allowing players to go gung-ho for a winner.
Perhaps that is what’s really new about this England squad. Their desperate desire to win means they don’t mind winning ugly. And they don’t mind if that means upsetting some supporters in the process.
Follow England’s European Qualifier against Italy live on Sky Sports’ digital platforms from 6pm on Tuesday; kick-off 7.45pm