Southgate searches for solutions as England train for Nations League - in pictures

Three Lions play Italy in Milan on Friday before taking on Germany at Wembley on Monday

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England manager Gareth Southgate is facing pressure from all directions after an increasingly difficult build-up to the World Cup 2022.

The Three Lions' performances in their previous round of Nations League matches set the alarm bells ringing with the finals in Qatar looming on the horizon.

Southgate's side look set for relegation from their Nations League group heading into Friday's match against Italy. England failed to win any of their four games in June, a dismal run that featured two defeats against Hungary – the last of which was a 4-0 humiliation at Molineux.

That triggered a deluge of criticism for Southgate. However, what will concern the manager even more is the fitness issues, poor form or fragile club status of some of his key players two months out from the World Cup.

From the team that started the European Championship final against Italy last year, defenders Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw have been dropped by Manchester United, while midfielder Kalvin Phillips requires shoulder surgery and could miss the World Cup.

Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford is out injured, centre-back John Stones has been playing as a right back for Manchester City, and midfielders Declan Rice and Mason Mount have been in underwhelming form for West Ham and Chelsea, respectively, in the first six weeks of the Premier League.

England winger Jack Grealish believes it is unfair to attack the manager who led his country to the Euro 2020 final and the 2018 World Cup semi-finals.

“We reached the final last year and then the Hungary game [where England lost 1-0] at the start of the last camp. I think before that the last time we'd lost a game over 90 minutes was maybe Belgium in November 2020 or something,” Grealish said.

“So, I think it is very harsh, especially as you saw at the World Cup and the Euros how well the team done and the manager himself. I thought it was obviously harsh but sometimes that's what you get if you're English. I've certainly had my fair share.”

Grealish knows all about public criticism after his erratic form for Premier League champions City since his British record £100 million move from Aston Villa last year.

The 27-year-old scored his first goal this season in Saturday's 3-0 win at Wolves, with City teammate Kevin De Bruyne suggesting afterwards that English players are unfairly targeted for abuse.

“I can obviously see where he's coming from a little bit. But I think that's just the way it is in this country, especially if you're myself, playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world, who are winning trophies every single year,” Grealish said.

“And obviously when I have the price tag on my head that I have, people are going to want to talk. I keep going back to it, saying embrace it and it's just part and parcel, really. But, yeah, I do see where he's coming from a little bit.”

Still in shock from failing to qualify for a second consecutive World Cup, European champions Italy is looking to regain some respect. That process could begin by reaching the Nations League’s final four.

“We know we owe something to our fans,” Italy forward Ciro Immobile said. “In tough times, the national team has represented a common bond for everyone and we saw how united Italy was during the European Championship. That’s where we need to restart from.”

Immobile, who was criticised for his lack of goals during World Cup qualifying, considered retiring from the national team.

“As the weeks went by I realised that it shouldn’t be others to decide my destiny,” he said. “I still have a lot to give.”

England play in Milan on Friday before taking on Germany at London’s Wembley Stadium on Monday.

Updated: September 22, 2022, 12:23 PM
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