Friday, September 8, 2023

England Versus Ukraine Storylines

The Premier League is on pause for international break with Euro Qualification matches front and center. England’s Premier League all-star team, plus current La Liga star Jude Bellingham, takes on Ukraine Saturday in a group qualification match. Manager Gareth Southgate has the England team positioned at the top of their group with victories in their first four matches. Despite the success, Southgate drew criticism with some of his squad selections for the Ukraine match and next week’s contest in Scotland.

Manchester United center back Harry Maguire keeps his place on the national team despite his diminished status and minutes for the Red Devils. But for a recent spate of injuries to teammates, Maguire would be unlikely to arise from the Manchester United bench. The former club captain declined opportunities to move on during the recent transfer window due to complications surrounding his disproportionately massive salary. Another league benchwarmer selected by Southgate is Kalvin Phillips. The defensive midfielder, who starred for Leeds a few seasons back, has seen only a six-minute substitute appearance for Manchester City this season. Last season was the same story as Phillips isn’t good enough to crack Manager Pep Guardiola’s lineup which boasts the stellar Rodri in Phillips’ position. Southgate, however, has little choice due to the dearth of English players who can fill the role protecting England’s back line. Jordan Hendersen, now of the Saudi Pro League after seeing a diminished role at Liverpool, is another such midfielder who Southgate seemingly can’t do without.

The England manager, however, is also giving opportunities and expanded roles to other players with this latest version of England. Creative midfielder James Maddison, a key cog at revitalized Tottenham Hotspur, could be a key player for Southgate. Maddison has two goals and two assists in his four league matches and will be anxious to impress Southgate after the England midfielder missed out on the World Cup due to a knee injury. Twenty-three-year-old Crystal Palace defender Marc Guehi is a potential candidate to displace Maguire alongside Manchester City’s John Stones when England travels to Germany for next summer’s Euros. Stones is currently sidelined by injury, opening up minutes for some other defenders during the upcoming two matches. Twenty-year-old defender Levi Colwill has received his first call-up for England after starring for the Euro 21 campions and playing every minute for Chelsea this season.

Another player making the squad for the first time is Arsenal’s Eddie Nketiah who has bagged two Premier League goals for the London club this season. Yet another young player to watch is Crystal Palace’s Eberechi Eze who makes his second England squad. The attacking midfielder has moved out from under the shadow of the now departed Wilfried Zaha at Crystal Palace this season.

A player from outside the Premier League could be the most exciting player on this England squad. Jude Bellingham already has five goals and an assist in his four matches for Real Madrid after his transfer from Borussia Dortmund. A far less successful transfer has been Chelsea’ acquisition of Mykhailo Mudryk. Acquired last January, the Ukrainian is yet to register a goal or assist for the Blues. A good performance Saturday against many of the players he’ll face in the Premier League would do wonders for his shaken confidence.

Arsenal’s Oleksandr Zinchenko is also part of the Ukraine squad as is former West Ham forward Andrij Yarmolenko. Saturday’s match, technically a home contest for Ukraine, will be played in Poland due to the ongoing war. Ukraine sits second in the qualifying group, having won twice after an earlier loss to England. A result this weekend would greatly help Ukraine’s qualification chances. The group winner and runner up automatically qualify for Germany, and Italy poses a threat in the group to overtake Ukraine in the chase behind England.

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