Ivan Toney to start against Belgium in Euro 2024 audition

Ivan Toney warming up at Wembley Stadium - Ivan Toney to start against Belgium in Euro 2024 audition

Ivan Toney is expected to start England’s friendly against Belgium with Gareth Southgate hailing the striker’s “swagger” as he finally gets his chance to stake a claim to be in the squad for the European Championship.

With Harry Kane ruled out injured and returning to Bayern Munich and with Ollie Watkins having failed to grasp his opportunity in the disappointing 1-0 defeat by Brazil Toney is being earmarked for his first start.

Southgate admitted that one of the biggest challenges of putting a team together to face Belgium is “who is left” with injuries hitting hard and the need to manage the minutes of players before the season’s intense run in.

Jude Bellingham may not start – with James Maddison potentially coming in for that No 10 role. Southgate said the Real Madrid midfielder came off against Brazil because he was “cramping up” having “missed a lot of football recently”.

Jude Bellingham getting cramp
Bellingham cramped up at Wembley - Getty Images/Chris Brunskill

There are also concerns over Ben Chilwell, who was substituted on his way back from injury, while Conor Gallagher may need to be rested. Of those who made their debut against Brazil, Southgate said that Anthony Gordon is now a “serious contender” for his 23-man squad to go to Germany this summer while Ezri Konsa impressed at right-back and is likely to be given another chance against the Belgians. Kyle Walker was substituted early having felt tightness in his hamstring and has returned to Manchester City, while Harry Maguire has also been sent home as he awaits the results of a scan.

There will be a great deal of focus on Toney whose only previous appearance for England was as an 81st-minute substitute – replacing Kane – in a 2-0 Euro qualifier win last March against Ukraine. After that, in May, the Brentford forward was banned for eight months after admitting 232 counts of breaking the Football Association’s rules on betting.

The 27-year-old only returned to action in January but has always remained in Southgate’s plans with the England manager bringing him back into the squad at the first opportunity for this pair of prestige friendlies.

Asked how big Tuesday’s game was for Toney, Southgate said: “You can’t hide that fact. He knows. It would be his first start so you’ve got to bear that in mind as well. But with England that’s the landscape, you don’t get hundreds of opportunities. I think every player recognises that’s the world we live in. But he’s a confident guy, he comes in on the back of a good run of form with his club. He’s going to be on the field on Tuesday, no question.”

‘His quality in link play is very good’

Toney is a different kind of striker from Watkins who has been in outstanding form for Aston Villa but, so far, has struggled to continue that with England.

“I think sometimes the quality of [Toney’s] football can be underestimated. His passing, his link play,” Southgate said. “We’re still getting to know all of those strengths because until you work with a player more regularly you don’t know them inside out. You look at him being a big guy but he’s not just a target man. His quality in link play is very good as well.”

Toney is also certainly not lacking in confidence, which Southgate said was one of his key assets. “It’s crucial, especially for forward players. That swagger, that self-belief is crucial. All of the top forward players have it,” he added.

Toney is also excellent at taking penalties which could be decisive at the Euros if England go into another shoot-out in the knock-out stages. Southgate says he still has to work out the permutations with the squad he can take being reduced from 26, for the last two tournaments, back to 23.

“It’s definitely a great asset to have. We’ve obviously got to work out the balance of the squad,” Southgate said. “To see someone like Ezri Konsa do so well at full-back, which was a really difficult ask. He can play a couple of positions and those types of players become really important if it’s a 23-player squad.”

That sounds like positive news for Konsa and there was also encouragement from Southgate for Gordon. “The good thing is that Gordon did what we thought he was going to do,” he said of the Newcastle United forward. “He showed what he’s done for his club, he’s a serious contender and we have to know what these other options are if we lose players like we have because no-one really knows how this season is going to pan out.”

There may be a chance for Cole Palmer, who is back in full training along with Jordan Henderson, with Southgate admitting it is a challenge to field a team for the fixture, given the absences, without overloading some players.

“We’re looking at who’s left,” Southgate said. “That’s the reality. We needed to get Ben [Chilwell] and Harry [Maguire] off at 60 minutes because they’ve missed football in this period. We’re thinking with Conor [Gallagher] to refresh him. It’s bizarre camp, really.

“We have to be responsible in how we play them – Chilwell and Maguire would be an example because of their recent load. Jude, when he’s cramping after an hour, we’re not going to take a chance with that sort of thing.”

Southgate said he was happy with Chilwell’s performance against Brazil, although the left-back came in for some criticism. The hope also remains that Luke Shaw will be fit in time for the Euros and will recover from a recurrence of a leg problem. But there was a warning from Southgate.

“Luke’s one of the best left backs in world football, frankly,” Southgate said. “But he’s going to be right on the edge of the season. We know now [for him] to play seven matches in a Euros [to reach the final] is highly unlikely.”

Defeat shows how much England midfield needs Alexander-Arnold

Trent Alexander-Arnold joined the England squad at Wembley on Saturday as he steps up his comeback from a knee injury, with Gareth Southgate now facing a decision on gambling on him to solve his midfield conundrum at Euro 2024.

Southgate has used Alexander-Arnold in midfield on four occasions, handing him the No 10 shirt in qualifiers against Malta and North Macedonia, but has not tested him against high-level opposition yet.

With Kalvin Phillips out of favour, there remains a slot alongside Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham in the central positions. Conor Gallagher started against Brazil at the weekend but the defeat left more questions than answers in the midfield. It could be argued it was a ringing endorsement of Alexander-Arnold starting when their Euros campaign begins against Serbia on June 16.

Alexander-Arnold’s place in the squad is guaranteed if he stays fit. He was named in the final squad 16 months ago for Qatar and was only ruled out of the tournament through injury and Southgate has been “trialling” him as a midfielder since then.

The Liverpool player, 25, was also fielded as an inverted full-back against Australia, starting on the right but moving into central midfield. It was a friendly against the team 23rd in Fifa’s world rankings, who made it through to the World Cup knockout stages, but the question is whether Alexander-Arnold is ready to start against the very best.

“The midfield thing we’ve seen, but we’ve missed two opportunities with September and now this one that is really frustrating because there’s so much that’s unknown about it at the minute,” said Southgate. “As you know, I’ve liked the idea for a long time, but we’re going to be trialling it when we haven’t seen it in a really high-level game. So we’ll just have to see where we can go with it.”

Trent Alexander-Arnold warms up for Liverpool
Trent Alexander-Arnold, currently out with a knee injury, has been trialled as a midfielder in his most recent games for England - Mike Egerton/PA

Alexander-Arnold’s commitment to the Euros was there to be seen at Wembley. He could have been in Liverpool as he targets a comeback from a knee injury that has ruled him out since February 10, but he chose to be part of the squad along with Luke Shaw, who is out injured and worked at St George’s Park to be around the England squad.

“Trent wanted to come to the game, he’s obviously in the latter stage of rehab with Liverpool, so it wasn’t as easy for him to dip in like Luke Shaw did,” said Southgate.

With Rice anchoring and Bellingham surging forward, it is just the other central midfielder that Southgate needs to cement ahead of the summer. Jordan Henderson is also in the squad, although was not fit for the Brazil match. Kobbie Mainoo made his debut against the South Americans but is raw. Kyle Walker’s position at right-back is secure, so playing Alexander-Arnold as an inverted full-back does not seem likely.

“It’s such a specialist position. There’s a huge difference between playing at full-back and popping into midfield and playing in there, starting in there, in and out of position in the game,” said Southgate. “Receiving with your back to goal, so there’s a lot to that. We’re just going to have to see.”

Gallagher was a valuable squad player at the World Cup and has made the bulk of his caps since the tournament. He believes he has become a better player this season at Chelsea after captaining the team in the absence of Reece James and Ben Chilwell through injury. He has reached the Carabao Cup final and FA Cup semi-final despite Mauricio Pochettino’s team struggling for consistency in the Premier League.

“I think gaining experience wherever in football, if it is club or international, you improve in certain scenarios and in tournaments coming up with England, gaining the experience I’ve had in the two cup competitions with Chelsea and getting as far as we have done will definitely help being in those positions,” Gallagher said.

“I’ve had to step up and be more of a leader this season at Chelsea which I’ve really enjoyed and I think that’s helped me develop more as a player as well.”

‘Fantastic’ debut for Gordon

While Southgate still has problems to solve in midfield, he also has plenty of talent pushing for places in his front line. He was pleased with Anthony Gordon’s debut and told the Newcastle winger so when he took him off in the second half.

“He was saying, ‘fantastic’. He was really pleased for me. I think he was happy with my performance which is always a good thing,” said Gordon, who is targeting a place at the Euros. His performance was a positive during a match in which England missed the firepower of Harry Kane, who has been ruled out of Tuesday’s friendly against Belgium.

“We need more killer instinct. I felt we were the better team and controlled the game but we lacked that bit in the final third,” added Gordon. “Against teams like that, on the counter-attack they’re going to get some chances across the 90 minutes. They did, they took theirs.”

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