It is a potentially huge weekend for England, although not in the way tournament qualification used to be. This doesn’t quite feel like Hampden Park 1999, or Old Trafford 2001. There is, however, a bit of late 80s vibe – and not in an entirely positive way.
Tournament qualification, after all, is what victory in Prague on Friday will bring. The fact the Czech Republic are currently so underwhelming, England are so good, and Euro 2020 qualification has long been seen as a matter of course, however, has put more focus on unsavoury issues sadly seen as a similar matter of course.
This is a fixture that authorities – both within the FA and the Czech Republic – have long worried about. Given English supporters’ recent history of unrest, a famous stag-party venue on a Friday night is a recipe for trouble. Duly, this is expected to see the biggest travelling contingent for years, with up to 5,000 coming.
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If they can avoid trouble – as, to be fair, did eventually happen during the last away trip in Portugal for the Nations League after the initial unrest in Porto city centre – there is the next difficulty, that has cast a longer shadow over these games than anything else. It is the prospect of racial abuse towards England’s black players, for the second leg of this trip away to Bulgaria.
Bulgarian supporters were found guilty of racist behaviour in the matches against Kosovo and the Czech Republic in June, which will see 5,000 seats blocked off at the Vasil Levski National Stadium, and has pretty much dominated the build-up to these games. It has already provoked a lot of questions, and a public dispute. With Tammy Abraham having said he would be wiling to go against Uefa’s three-step protocol on how to handle racist chanting by walking off the pitch, Boislav Mikhaylov – the Bulgarian Football Union president and USA 94 hero – argued such discussions were “derogatory”.
Recent history would suggest otherwise, and that a certain level of trepidation is understandable. And that is very much the mood in the build-up to the weekend, in all of these issues. A sense of apprehension usually reserved for big games on the pitch.
The fact that England have already put nine goals past Czech Republic and Bulgaria, however, is one reason why everything else feels amped up. There just isn’t the same meaning to the actual games.
Even if they don’t prove to be foregone conclusions, qualification is. If England don’t qualify this weekend, they will eventually. They have too good a points base, although Gareth Southgate obviously won’t let his players think along those lines.
Given that, and the squad’s form, another statement display is likely. They should be aiming for a 100% record in this group. This is the state of the Czech team right now. This is the strength of England. Even there, though, Southgate’s opportunity to experiment has been curtailed by the illness to James Maddison.
His potential inclusion – and what would have been a first cap – offered the main selection intrigue to this game. As it is, we’re likely to see a similar midfield to usual, and it is highly unlikely that Harry Kane will be replaced by Tammy Abraham in the starting line-up – regardless of their finishing form right now.
Even the question over whether Jadon Sancho will be picked over Marcus Rashford seems less important, because of the drastic difference in form between the two. It is thereby a weekend that is unlikely to provoke too many discussions on the pitch. Off it, however, could be a different matter.
That is where the real tension is, even as England face up to another qualification.