Robert Lewandowski’s absence for Poland will not lull Gareth Southgate into a false sense of security as England prepare for a step up in quality in a key World Cup qualifier.
After the 5-0 cakewalk against San Marino and Sunday’s comfortable 2-0 win in Albania, the Group I leaders have the chance to strengthen their grip on top spot and smooth the road to Qatar.
Poland are sure to prove the toughest test of March’s triple-header, but Wednesday’s opponents have had to deal with positive Covid-19 cases ahead of the trip to Wembley and travel to London without their star man.
Lewandowski will miss this match and the next four weeks with a strained knee ligament, but Southgate says the Bayern Munich sharpshooter’s absence does not make England’s final competitive match before the Euros any easier.
“From our perspective, you know you’re going to have some players who are very hungry to fill that opportunity,” the England boss said.
“You know they’ve got some very good forwards (Arkadiusz) Milik, (Piotr) Zielinski, (Krzysztof) Piatek – they’re a good side with some good players.
“I have played Polish teams before. They fight for the cause, they’re a proud country, they’re a good football team, they’ve got a new coach, so they’ve got high motivation.
“We all know this is a key game in the qualification group.
“We’ve got to keep improving. We’ve shown a good level in our first two matches this week and we’ve got to keep stepping up and I believe the players can do that.”
Southgate said it would be “naive” to think Poland would be less of a threat without Lewandowski, saying “we have got to prepare to the very highest level”.
West Ham midfielder Declan Rice echoed the Three Lions manager’s sentiments, pointing to Poland’s attacking strength in depth.
“We would be naive to think they are not a top side and do not have quality all around the pitch,” said the 22-year-old, who put in a man-of-the-match display against Albania on Sunday.
“Most of their players are playing in the Premier League, Bundesliga or Serie A and they have got two good strikers up front in Piatek and Milik, who are known goalscorers so we need to be on it, we need to be ready.
“They will come and be a big threat. They will want to beat us at Wembley and, for us, it is a chance to end the week well with three wins out of three so it will be a really tough game and we are ready for it.”
Southgate will be selecting his side accordingly against the 19th best side in the world, with all 24 players fit for selection despite Mason Mount starting Tuesday’s training session indoors with the medical and performance team.
“He didn’t warm up with the rest of the team, but he did the rest of the session after so he should be fine,” Southgate said of the Chelsea midfielder.
“They’re all available as far as we’re concerned.
“I think we’ve managed the team, not only through the matches but also the training sessions and we’ve been very cautious with the load that the players have had, so we have got to balance that freshness tomorrow.
“But we’re very happy with the performance the other day, of course, and, yeah, I think around Europe most countries have taken a similar slant on the games.
“So, we’ve got to look at the best team to win the game and we’re well prepared for it.”
Southgate is excited for his players when they line up at Wembley for the last time before the Euros group clash against Croatia on June 13.
The England manager last week said he would know his starting line-up if he had to name it now, but highlighted the absence of injured regulars like Jordan Henderson, Jordan Pickford and Marcus Rashford.
“In fairness the question was ‘if you were playing Croatia tomorrow would you know your starting 11?’ which obviously would have ruled six injured players out,” Southgate said.
“That is always going to evolve and there’s always opportunity for people to play their way into our thinking – not only tomorrow but through games with their clubs, which are going to be important.
“There are going to be some big matches between now and the end of the season.
“There’s obviously more competition in some areas of the pitch than others.
“But we’ve always got a batting order in every position, a depth chart, at any given time and we would know how that is now.
“But of course that can change over the next six or seven weeks and you’ve got to balance form against what we believe people are really capable of. Some of that is what we’ve really seen in big matches for us in the past.
“John Stones coming back in, for example, that’s mapping club form with (the fact) we know he’s played in a World Cup before for us. We know he’s played in important matches, so we know he can handle those sort of occasions.
“There’s all those different criteria that you have to work your way through to reach the best possible decision.
“It’s not as easy as picking the three 100 metres runners for the Olympics. That’s straightforward. In the end the three with the best time get selected.
“Selecting a football squad or team is much more nuanced and of course that’s going to cause debate or disagreement.
“But I think our processes and the way we track the players is as thorough as it can be.”