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5 talking points ahead of England’s Nations League clash with Belgium

(Image credit: Owen Humphreys)

England will attempt to move top of their Nations League group by beating Belgium in Sunday’s Wembley encounter.

Ahead of the Group A2 meeting, the PA news agency takes a look at five of the main talking points.

Can England tame the Red Devils?

Belgium celebrate beating England in the 2018 World Cup third-placed play-off

Belgium celebrate beating England in the 2018 World Cup third-placed play-off (Aaron Chown/PA)

England face one of the toughest tests in football in front of empty stands at Wembley this Sunday. Belgium have sat atop of the FIFA world rankings since 2018, when they twice beat Southgate’s side on the way to winning bronze at the World Cup. Roberto Martinez’s side beat much-changed England 1-0 to top their group in Russia, where they would then triumph 2-0 in the third-place play-off. Many of that squad remains and England will need to be at their best to replace Belgium as leaders of Group A2 given the Red Devils followed up their 2-0 win in Denmark by thrashing Iceland 5-1 last month.

Sancho straight into the side?

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Last month’s international meet up was dominated by off-field issues, with manager Gareth Southgate having to send Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood home for breaching the strict bio bubble in Iceland. There was another Covid-19 headache for the England boss to contend with this time around after Jadon Sancho, Tammy Abraham and Ben Chilwell breached the Government’s ‘rule of six’. The trio missed Thursday’s friendly against Wales as a result of it but Southgate says “that situation is done” so, while Chilwell remains absent with a non-coronavirus related illness, Sancho and Abraham are back in contention. The strikers at Southgate’s disposal means the latter is unlikely to be rushed into the starting line-up, but Sancho’s stardust could provide a welcome boost with Raheem Sterling out injured.

Can Maguire return to form?

England captain Harry Kane helped Tottenham to a 6-1 win against Harry Maguire's Manchester United in their last match

England captain Harry Kane helped Tottenham to a 6-1 win against Harry Maguire’s Manchester United in their last match (Carl Recine/PA)

The focus of last month’s internationals may have ended on Foden and Greenwood, but it started with Harry Maguire under the spotlight. The Manchester United captain was withdrawn from the England squad just hours after Southgate selected him, with a Greek court handing down a 21-month suspended prison sentence for an incident in Mykonos – a verdict the defender is appealing. Maguire has struggled for form since returning to club action but is in line to make his first England appearance in 11 months on Sunday. Southgate will be hoping the man he calls the Three Lions’ “most reliable defender over the last couple of years” is back to his best.

Will Grealish keep his spot?

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Having brought the Aston Villa playmaker into last month’s squad as an injury replacement and then handed him his debut off the bench in Denmark, the 25-year-old got a starting role against Wales. Jack Grealish grasped that opportunity in some style, earning plaudits aplenty as well as the man of the match award. Southgate knows the Villa skipper will be “hungry to back up the performance the other night” but the England boss has to decide whether to throw him in again when taking into account the shape of his side and the player himself.

Pickford back in over Pope?

England goalkeepers Nick Pope and Jordan Pickford during training

England goalkeepers Nick Pope and Jordan Pickford during training (Joe Giddens/PA)

After a rocky period at Everton for England number one Jordan Pickford, Southgate took a closer look at Nick Pope from the start against Wales. The Burnley shot-stopper looked sturdy but did not have much to do in Thursday’s friendly and could well find himself back on the bench alongside Dean Henderson on Sunday. Southgate refused to shed light on the goalkeeping situation ahead of the match but Pickford – one of the stars of England’s run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals – knows he has a continuing battle on his hands.