Jack Grealish set for third England start in a row amid Gareth Southgate U-turn
Jack Grealish has won over the nation and persuaded Gareth Southgate into making a U-turn.
Southgate says Grealish will start his third England game in a row against Iceland on Wednesday as long as he can prove his fitness to try and nail down his place ahead of next summer’s Euros.
But despite the groundswell of public opinion and rave reviews of his performances, Grealish is actually facing arguably the toughest competition for places in all of the departments of Southgate’s squad.
Three Lions boss Southgate has an embarrassment of riches in that area of the pitch with as many as eight different players battling it out for two places alongside Harry Kane in England’s attack.
Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford are the most experienced and likely starters either side of England captain Kane which puts into perspective the challenge facing Grealish.
If everyone is fit, Grealish is still not an automatic starter despite his dazzling individual performances which appear to have won over Southgate.
After all, Southgate was not a believer.
He only gave the Aston Villa captain his first call-up in September after a raft of injury pull-outs and still made Grealish wait until Sunday for his first competitive start in Belgium.
That is because Southgate has so many other options including Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount and Mason Greenwood while Phil Foden and James Maddison are also in the picture even if they are different players.
Sancho was the bright hope last season, his pace and stats set him apart and yet some indifferent and inconsistent performances for Borussia Dortmund shows just how fierce the battle for places is.
Suddenly, Sancho is on the outside looking in, the 20-year-old has slipped behind Chelsea ’s versatile midfielder Mount in the pecking order.
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Mount can play centrally, Southgate likes his consistency and reliability – he is often steady rather than spectacular – and also be one of the wide men either side of Kane.
Grealish was clearly rather embarrassed by fans insisting it was either him or Mount, suggesting Mount was teacher’s pet and he had become a victim of circumstance.
Manchester United teenager Greenwood did not even make the cut this time having lost his place at Old Trafford but he is one for the future if he can get his form back.
Manchester City starlet Foden is regarded as one of English football’s brightest hopes, rather like Mount he can play centrally or as one of the wide players and has a massive future under Southgate.
Leicester playmaker Maddison has also lost his place in the England squad, he is more of a No 10 and maybe there will not be room for a playmaker in a 3-4-3 formation.
Callum Hudson-Odoi, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Harvey Barnes are probably on the fringes now which is further proof of the names at Southgate’s disposal.
Hudson-Odoi has not played for England for more than a year, Barnes was in the squad last month and Oxlade-Chamberlain remains on Southgate’s radar despite recent injuries.
Southgate has just four more competitive fixtures – Iceland tomorrow and three World Cup qualifiers in March – before naming his squad for the Euros.
And Grealish must hope that he can gain the sort of momentum that pushed Paul Gascoigne from the fringes to the squad for Italia 90.
It has a similar feel.
Southgate said: “I think to just focus on what he has done, he has impressed us so much with the way he has been with the group, training, taking on board tactical information and none of that is a given.
“To come into a new group of players no matter what your quality is, is not an easy thing. He should be delighted. It is something to build on now. I am really pleased with him.”
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