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England World Cup squad: The key questions facing Gareth Southgate

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Gareth Southgate will reveal his England football team squad for the Fifa World Cup finals at St George’s Park on Thursday, bringing months of speculation over his selection to an end.

The likes of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Jordan Pickford can all be certain of their places but others face an anxious wait to find out if they will travel to Qatar next week and be in contention to play in the opening game against Iran on 21 November.

The England manager has difficult decisions to make in several areas of the pitch, as well as judgement calls on players who are only just returning from injury.

Southgate is expected to take advantage of the expanded squad size and name a full 26-man selection, giving him as many options as possible as he aims to go one further than at Euro 2020 and win England’s first major international tournament in 57 years.

Here, The Independent runs through the key questions facing Southgate…

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How many injured players should be risked?

The unique nature of this winter World Cup, with the opening game coming just seven days into the Premier League’s mid-season break, means there has been a greater risk of players missing out through injury than ever before.

Given that, England have got off relatively lightly by only having a handful of headaches, but that does not mean there have not been close calls to make.

Reece James will miss out. The “devastated” Chelsea wing-back had been confident of proving his fitness – flying to Dubai for an intensive rehabilitation programme which may have helped him return in time for the knockout stages – but Southgate was reluctant to gamble on a player who is still in the recovery phase of a knee injury.

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Kyle Walker’s chances of a place on the plane looked just as slim after he underwent groin surgery but his recovery has been quick and impressive enough to bring him back into contention. The Manchester City right-back’s experience, versatility and recovery pace are highly valued by Southgate and could be enough for him to sneak in.

Kalvin Phillips, meanwhile, has not kicked a ball in anger since September and had only played 14 minutes before City’s EFL Cup third-round tie against Chelsea, in which he finally made his return. A lack of match sharpness is a worry but, given midfield depth issues, Southgate is likely to conclude Phillips is a risk worth taking.

Where are all the left-backs?

Unfortunately, pre-tournament injuries were not limited to the many different options on the right-hand side of England’s defence. After failing to get on the pitch during the Euros, Ben Chilwell’s major tournament misfortune continued when he suffered a hamstring injury last week that will rule him out of Qatar.

Chilwell will miss the tournament with a hamstring injury

The Chelsea full-back’s absence means Luke Shaw – susceptible to the odd injury himself – could be the only recognised left-back in the squad.

There is no single outstanding candidate to take Chilwell’s place. Tyrick Mitchell made his international bow in March but has struggled for form with Crystal Palace this term, while Ryan Sessegnon is uncapped. Cover is instead likely to be provided by the versatile Kieran Trippier or Bukayo Saka, who started at left wing-back in September’s 1-0 defeat to Italy.

Who to pick from all the wide forwards?

If Saka is needed as an auxiliary left wing-back, at least one part of the pitch where Southgate is not short of options is the wide areas up front. The Arsenal youngster is one of several outstanding talents capable of playing in a front three with Kane, while there are several international calibre options in reserve too.

Of course, not all of them can go to Qatar. Sterling is guaranteed a spot despite a challenging start to life at Chelsea. His importance to Southgate’s set-up has never been in doubt. Saka, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish can also be confident of their places while Mason Mount is also capable of playing as part of a midfield three.

The biggest question mark is over Marcus Rashford, whose last kick in international football was his missed penalty in the Euro 2020 final shootout. It has been a long road back to the England set-up since, through arguably the worst form of his career, but a recall was expected to come in September if not for injury and now looks likely.

A Rashford return would likely extinguish the faint hopes of Jarrod Bowen, who earnt his first call-up during the summer’s Nations League games and was retained in the squad but unused for the last camp. Jadon Sancho has not impressed Southgate enough to return since losing his place last year.

Who covers for Harry Kane?

One advantage of recalling Rashford would be his ability to play up front and cover for Kane, though expect Southgate to at least select one established number nine as back-up for the England captain.

As long as Kane remains available for the duration, it will be one of the less consequential calls that Southgate had to make. On the other hand, in the worst-case scenario of a Kane injury, this call could have a huge bearing on how far England progress.

Callum Wilson has done just about everything to earn a place, scoring six goals in 10 games as part of Newcastle’s impressive start to the Premier League season, and playing especially well in the recent 4-0 win over Aston Villa with Southgate in attendance. Wilson’s own injury record could count against him in the final analysis.

His rivals for the spot are Ivan Toney, who was an unused squad member in September but has an exemplary penalty-taking record to stand in his favour; and Tammy Abraham, who has been named in every squad since last October but is struggling for scoring form in Serie A, with just three goals in 18 appearances.

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Does James Maddison deserve a place?

Arguably, the most contentious decision of all will regard a player who has just one England cap.

A 34-minute substitute appearance in a 7-0 win over Montenegro three years ago is the sum total of James Maddison’s international experience but the clamour for him to be included in his first squad since has grown and grown.

Maddison has been in excellent form since the turn of the calendar year, scoring 13 goals and setting up another nine. Only Kane, Kevin De Bruyne and Heung-min Son can beat that over the same period.

Maddison has been in fine form for Leicester

Still, he is waiting for a recall. Perhaps it is not simply a case of picking players on form. The Leicester City playmaker is perhaps not a suitable tactical fit into Southgate’s current system, while the competition for an attacking midfield spot is fierce.

And in any case, is there much sense in taking him if he will not play? Southgate’s reluctance to start Grealish threatened to become a sideshow during the Euros and the England manager prefers to stick to his guns rather than bend to public opinion.

Southgate is also loyal to those who have been part of England’s relative success under his management over the last few years. Though always open to bringing players into the fold – as Grealish’s emergence has proved – this World Cup may have come too late for Maddison.

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