By Neil Leverett
- England travel to Sofia to face Bulgaria in their sixth Euro 2020 qualifier against Bulgaria on Monday night
- Three Lions seek riposte after Friday’s surprise defeat the Czech Republic in Prague
- Gareth Southgate pondering return to same three-man defence, that led England to World Cup semi-finals two summers ago
SOFIA, BULGARIA – After the Czech Republic stunned England in Prague, the Three Lions look to get their Euro 2020 qualification back on track against Bulgaria in Sofia on Monday night.
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Prague wake-up call
After Friday evening’s chastening defeat against the Czech Republic, England will look to re-gather themselves as they travel east to face Bulgaria on Monday night, in their sixth Euro 2020 qualifier at the Stadion Vasil Levski in Sofia.
Having conceded three in their preceding game against Kosovo – and heard the alarm bells ring in defence before hand – the weekend’s loss to their Group A rivals was nevertheless a result that sent seismic shockwaves across the European footballing continent.
Despite taking the lead via a Harry Kane penalty, the Three Lions’ further lapses in the back line from set-pieces lay the foundations of defeat in place, before Zdenek Ondrasek‘s late winner stunned the visitors to inflict a rare qualifying defeat – their first in a decade.
Whilst a far from terminal result to ensuring their spot at next summer’s continent-wide European Championships, if Gareth Southgate‘s men have designs on taking their place in the semi-finals on home turf at Wembley Stadium, the response must be swift, beginning against Bulgaria.
Return to back three?
That reaction is set to see a raft of changes made to play the Group basement dwellers, including a return to a three-man defence – arguably England’s strongest set-up that led the Three Lions the last four in Russia 15 months ago.
And. as the England boss told BBC Sport, Southgate has been mulling reverting back to his tried and tested method once more, even before Friday night’s rather grounding loss.
“We’re very aware and assessing those things. We are in a difficult situation in terms of the players that have played international football with us in that area of the pitch and who is playing regularly for their clubs.
That’s part of the reason we didn’t do that [play a back three against the Czech Republic].”
Whilst the injury and combined absence of John Stones and Kyle Walker has somewhat forced Southgate’s hand, England’s plethora of attacking resources have also given the Three Lions’ set-up a number of facets to juggle.
But with defensive issues poised to spoil England’s burgeoning new era, Southgate must seek to remedy his problems at a basic level, if indeed his charges are to stand toe-to-toe with Europe’s best.
Southgate set to ring changes
That may begin in earnest in Sofia, with Tyrone Mings set to handed his debut in Sofia to freshen up England’s troubled back line. with Michael Keane looking to have fluffed his lines for the national team – for the time being.
Both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ben Chilwell should come in at full-back, whilst Harry Winks may fill in for Declan Rice, who is struggling to shake off an illness picked up during the weekend.
A growing elephant in the room in the shape of Tammy Abraham may continue to be unanswered, with Kane surely set to retain his place, whilst Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho remain the favourites to back up the England skipper on the flanks.
England’s loss on Friday was far from terminal for their hopes of topping the Group, however with just their game in hand as the cushion now between the Czechs, victory in Bulgaria is vital to England’s progress.
Bulgarian Lions lurk
As the two respective pride of Lions face-off, England will be regarded as the resounding favourites for victory, and having recorded a 4-0 win over Bulgaria only last month, Southgate’s men will no doubt be confident of further spoils here.
In their last meeting however, the hosts could have taken a shock lead at Wembley and with a chance to try their luck at a shaken England, the nation propping up the standings with just three points will look to put the visiting defence under the microscope once more.
Whilst failing to find the net in their last two qualifiers, Bulgaria did score in their first four Group encounters and pushed Kosovo all the way back in June during a 3-2 loss.
Bulgaria has not boasted offensive treasures since the nineties and likes of Hristo Stoichkov et al, but Ivelin Popov has been their best source of threat this qualifying campaign, with the Bulgarian skipper on target in the summer.
Brazilian-born Wanderson is yet to score for his adopted nation, but can supply a threat, whilst Cherno More’s Ismail Isa gave Bulgaria a shock lead in Prague when they faced England’s conquerors in Matchday 3 – before going on to lose. It is however, hard to bill Monday evening’s hosts as anything more than an extreme underdog given England’s attacking arsenal.
England face Bulgaria on Monday night in the Euro 2020 qualifiers at the Stadion Vasil Levski in Sofia, kick-off 19:45 UK time.
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