Uefa Nations League: England's Harry Kane could be dropped in favour of Marcus Rashford
Tottenham striker struggled in Champions League final, and Gareth Southgate must try other options against Netherlands
You wait two decades for a semi-final and then two come along at once.
England find themselves in uncharted territory for a different reason, with this the inaugural Uefa Nations League, and it remains a matter for debate precisely how prestigious a new tournament is, but there is nevertheless a symbolic element to their presence.
It highlights the progress made by Gareth Southgate. It shows that this group is achieving things the famously inaccurately named Golden Generation could not and, individually, are accomplishing feats many had thought beyond them.
Had the Nations League come at this stage in several previous summers, England’s build-up would scarcely have been interrupted by the proximity of European finals. Instead, it feels rushed, brief, bitty. Ross Barkley may be the Baku one, the sole player who featured in the Europa League final last week, but there have been seven late arrivals via Madrid and, in some curses, a victory parade in Liverpool.
Those, such as John Stones and Ben Chilwell, whose thoughts have been concentrated on England have been pressganged into interviews at a point when international colleagues have been focused on career-defining club games.
Semi-finals are a rarity for England – the full list reads: 1966, 1968, 1990, 1996, 2018 – and yet selection could be dictated by the date players have become available.
There are cases where it is easy to imagine Southgate preferring the fresher player who has had longer to train with the team: perhaps Chilwell ahead of Danny Rose at left-back, Kyle Walker ahead of Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right, the rookie Declan Rice ahead of Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson in midfield.
“Planning something like this and being surprised that two top teams are in the [Uefa] Champions League final and a lot of these players are involved in the Nations League, that’s interesting planning,” said Jurgen Klopp, a critic of the competition, last month.
Rewind to autumn and Klopp had called it “the most senseless competition in football". It would be easy for the eliminated and the relegated to share that conclusion. Marcus Rashford made the counter-argument.
“The big teams will start to win it and put their names in its history," he noted. "Then the tournament will rise and rise."
Meaning, like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder. England should glimpse a reward for winning perhaps the toughest pool, containing Spain and Croatia, and sense the opportunity: they are alone among the World Cup semi-finalists in reaching the same stage of the Nations League.
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A repeat has nevertheless come in contrasting fashion.
Southgate has ripped up his 3-5-2 formation, reduced the reliance on set-pieces and introduced something more ambitious and attacking in a 4-3-3 shape which has suited emerging talents like Jadon Sancho and brought more from Raheem Sterling.
A by-product of systemic change is that Kieran Trippier, the outstanding right-back in the World Cup, has been squeezed out by Walker and Alexander-Arnold.
And yet there is a similarity with last summer.
Harry Kane scarcely looked fit against Croatia in Moscow. Nor was he at his sharpest in the Champions League final. Southgate and Mauricio Pochettino have been transformative meritocrats who have nevertheless remained wedded to a talisman.
Now Southgate has an alternative spearhead available in Rashford; perhaps a substitute captain in Sterling, who is set to win his 50th cap.
England do not need to provide a sequel to Saturday’s one-sided duel between Kane and Virgil van Dijk. They could do with providing a different ending. Their last four semi-finals may have felt more significant but all ended in defeat. Their only victory at this stage came in 1966 and against Portugal.
Now they face a semi-final in Portugal.
Updated: June 5, 2019 04:46 PM