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Big-match briefing: England have to improve in Sofia against Bulgaria

Time to make amends

THE one thing Gareth Southgate will be pleased by is that tonight’s Group A game in Sofia, where a win could yet see England qualify for the Euros if Kosovo beat the Czechs, is coming around quickly.

It presents an ideal opportunity to put the misery of Friday night to bed. Surely the Three Lions cannot play so badly again and Southgate will expect his stars to shine for him after the criticism in the wake of defeat to an average Czech Republic side. But Bulgaria, like the Czechs and Kosovo before them, will see ways to hurt England. It is not hard to score against Southgate’s men lately and that is a huge concern. A win and a better performance and Friday will be glossed over for now — lose and it could be a bigger problem Southgate is staring at.

No loyalty points

Southgate will come under fire for staying loyal to players who are woefully out of form. The likes of Harry Maguire, Michael Keane (pictured) and Danny Rose — three quarters of England’s back four — have been struggling for their clubs.

And it could even be argued, were Harry Kane not captain, that Tammy Abraham is the man of the moment in attack and could have presented the Czechs with more problems. Ross Barkley, a late substitute, cannot get in Chelsea’s starting XI. Southgate’s changes, when they did come, arrived too late. Surely it is time to try Tyrone Mings or Fikayo Tomori in that problem centre-back area.

Lacking leaders

When matches become battles, like in Prague, England seem to freeze. Nobody is able to take the game by the scruff of the neck, in the same way no one is able to lead the way when defending set-pieces.

There is a sense of a team lost. England lack leaders in wars of attrition and the Czechs appeared bigger, stronger and more experienced. It is a real worry for Southgate in the build-up to a ‘home’ Euros. And with eight months to go, it would seem he does not know his best XI at this stage.

Patience wearing thin

The Czechs — ranked 44th in the world — were nothing special, and that must be a genuine concern. They had no stars like Pavel Nedved or Patrik Berger, but did have spirit and determination. England were flat and cannot afford to be so again in Sofia.

There will be a close eye on the crowd, with racism in the spotlight in the lead-up to the fixture, but all eyes must also be on who is not cutting it in an England shirt. For some, chances are running out. If there is one positive from Friday, it is surely Southgate now knows that too.