Pre-match reading: Here’s Jonathan Liew on what Gareth Southgate will be hoping to glean over the next week or so:
In football, as in life, timing is everything. It is certainly no fault of Gareth Southgate’s that his England side must now take centre stage with last weekend’s riotously entertaining Premier League still fresh in the memory. Hurrah for international triple-header week, said no one ever; and yet the stakes for these three fixtures at a deserted Wembley – a friendly against Wales on Thursday, followed by Nations League games against Belgium on Sunday and Denmark on Wednesday – are considerable. Not simply for this emerging, amorphous England team, but for Southgate himself.
Pre-match listening: here’s the pod posse on all the latest footballish business:
For the 103rd time, England play Wales today. England are looking for a 68th win, and to avoid a 15th defeat. Here’s an uncanny thing: of the previous 102 games 50 have been played in England and 51 in Wales (with one at Euro 2016 in France); England have won 33 games in each country and conceded 45 goals in each country. England have scored 124 goals against Wales in England, and 121 against them in Wales.
Between 1879, when the teams first met, and 1984 the teams played 97 times in just 93 years of relative peacetime (just excluding the two world wars, when they had quite a good excuse for having their minds on other things). These games were part of the fabric of British culture. Since then there have been five matches in 36 years, and British culture is now made of a different fabric.
This is the first friendly between the sides in the lifetime of any of the players. The last was in March 1976, when the Welsh FA celebrated its centenary by inviting the old enemy to play them in Wrexham. But the thing about friendlies is that they’re less important than competitive matches, even ones in the Nations League, which is basically a tournament of halfheartedly giftwrapped friendlies. Wales have matches against the Republic of Ireland on Sunday and Bulgaria next Wednesday; England play Belgium on Sunday and Denmark on Wednesday.
In that 1976 friendly England picked eight debutants, one of whom was playing in the Third Division at the time. A vaguely similar level of experimentation may take place this evening, and word on the street is that Jack Grealish will start for England. “It’s always a big game when we play England but also we’ve got one eye on Sunday,” says Ryan Giggs. “England v Wales always captures the imagination but my priority is the Nations League.” Gareth Southgate, meanwhile, fibbed: “We have one match in my mind and that is Wales. Our focus on this game is the same as any other game.”
Anyway, I really am going on a bit. What I basically meant to say was, hello!
at 1.23pm EDT