England will face Poland and Hungary in 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying. In a virtual draw held in Zurich, Gareth Southgate’s side were placed in a very kind Group I, alongside Poland, Hungary, Albania, Andorra and San Marino. Southgate told EnglandFootball.org that matches against lower ranked sides offer “different sorts of experiences.”
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic which has disrupted international football no end, qualifying will take place between March and November 2021. The Three Lions will play three times in late March 2021, and another triple-header follows after ‘Euro 2020’ next September. Their final four matches will take place next autumn, with two fixtures in October and the last two taking place in November. Only the top team makes the finals, so England will be desperate to win the group and avoid the playoffs, where famously anything can happen.
England haven’t faced Poland since 2014 World Cup qualifying, when a 2-0 Wembley win under Roy Hodgson secured passage to the finals in Brazil. Older England fans will also recall that it was at the hands of Poland that Alf Ramsey’s side failed to reach the 1974 finals — goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski producing an incredible display to earn his side a 1-1 draw and a place at the tournament in West Germany at England’s expense. A meeting in qualification for the 2022 finals will pit arguably the world’s best strikers against one another, in the form of Robert Lewandowski and Harry Kane.
The third seeds in the group are Hungary, who England last played in 2010 — Steven Gerrard’s double earning Fabio Capello’s men a hard-fought 2-1 friendly win at Wembley. The central European side haven’t reached the finals since 1986, but they were runners-up in both the 1938 and 1954 editions, meaning they’ve reached the final of the World Cup more times than England.
England have only come across Albania four times before — every meeting coming in FIFA World Cup qualifiers. The 1966 World Cup winners have been victorious in all previous clashes, including a 5-0 home win in 1989.Embed from Getty Images
In Andorra and San Marino, England face two of Europe’s six worst sides — indeed, the latter are the lowest ranked team in the world according to the FIFA world rankings. In the combined ten previous meetings with the pair of them, England have scored a mighty 53 goals — their biggest of those ten victories coming in the form of an 8-0 away win in San Marino in spring 2013.
Speaking to EnglandFootball.org, the England manager wasn’t willing to accept the narrative that playing European microstates offers little opportunity for his team to learn and evolve.
“There’s an expectation you roll those teams over,” Southgate stated, “but my experience tells me those games are tough. They are different sorts of experiences. I’m not going to look at those games and say we’re going to use them particularly to experiment because frankly we’ve played young players against some really top teams. Going back to Brazil [and] Germany a couple of Novembers ago, we’ve dipped young players into every level of game.”Embed from Getty Images
It was clear where Southgate’s priority lies. “First and foremost, World Cup qualifiers you have to win; the objective is to get to Qatar. That’s where the honey is! The process of qualifying is one you’ve got to get through. If you can play well and score goals and entertain, fantastic, but first we have to win the matches.”
The England boss, as he so often does, took the positive spin on things. An easy group means — barring what would be an absolute disaster — straightforward qualification to the finals themselves. England are usually very good at the qualifying stage. Between 2009 and 2019, they went a decade unbeaten in these matches. It’s at the tournaments themselves that England teams of the past have come rather more unstuck.
In the coming weeks and months, Southgate’s analysts will be delving deep into their records as preparation to face five teams England haven’t faced yet under his management begins.