Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Michail Antonio have both withdrawn from the squad since it was originally announced, while England are without a raft of forwards – Harry Kane, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge – to injury.
Wayne Rooney has been left out while Danny Rose and Jordan Henderson are also both absent.
The Lithuania coach Edgaras Jankauskas has made six changes to the squad that lost 4-0 to Slovakia in November, the Zalgiris Vilnius centre-back Georgas Freidgeimas and the Portland Timbers left-back Vytautas Andriuskevicius being the highest-profile figures to be omitted.
England played extremely well in losing 1-0 to Germany in a friendly on Wednesday, certainly until a welter of substitutions destabilised the game in the final quarter. They were bright and sharp, pressed well and caused Germany innumerable problems. But they didn’t score and ended up being undone by a superb strike from Lukas Podolski. That Podolski was playing at all should caution against reading too much into the game: Germany seemed to be treating the match almost as a testimonial and were far from full-strength or full-pace.
Following the friendly against Spain in November, that’s two games in a row against high-class opposition in which England have played better than the result suggests. Beyond that, they’re two points clear at the top of the qualifying group having played their two most difficult away games. That doesn’t mean qualification for Russia will be a procession, but the way is clear.
Lithuania lie fourth in the group, five points behind England and three off a play-off spot. They drew away to Scotland but their only win has been against Malta and they followed up that defeat to Slovakia by losing 3-0 to the Czech Republic on Wednesday.
England and Lithuania have met only twice before, both times in European Championship qualifying in 2015. England won 4-0 at Wembley and 3-0 in Vilnius.
A BACK THREE FOR ENGLAND?
Gareth Southgate’s switch to a back three for the game in Germany was a surprise but it worked, playing to the strengths of the squad he has available. The extra central defender plus the defensive block in midfield offers security and gives licence to England’s full-backs to get forward, which will be even more of a strength when Rose is fit.
One of the advantages of the back three at international level is that it is flexible: the central midfield block of two holders and two inside-forwards can easily be adjusted according to the opposition to be more aggressive or more creative as required. And, as numerous Premier League defences have found this season, picking up two playmakers who have licence to drift across the width of the pitch can be extremely difficult.
WHERE DOES STERLING PLAY?
Raheem Sterling played no part against Germany but he presumably will start against Lithuania. The question, though, is where? The boldest move from Southgate would be to deploy him wide on the left, a role he has occasionally occupied for Manchester City. On the assumption England will not have a huge amount of defending to do, that might have the benefit of having him start fairly deep, making best use of his pace. On the other hand, it does leave Gary Cahill without much in the way of cover. A more natural position would be as one of the two inside-forwards, but given how well Dele Alli and Adam Lallana played in tandem, Southgate would have to consider if it is really worth breaking that partnership, even if it was just to push one of them a little deeper, taking Jake Livermore’s place alongside Eric Dier (not that Livermore played badly). The other option is to use Sterling as a false nine, leaving out Jamie Vardy on the reasoning that he is best when there is space to attack and Lithuania are likely to sit deep.
When Edgaras Jankauskas was a player, Lithuania left him alone up front and whacked it long to him. However, Jankauskas the coach has no similar target man so tends to deploy Nerijus Valskis as the lone front man (although he started from the bench against the Czech Republic).
The shape is 4-4-1-1, with two banks of four sat very deep. If England don’t score early, it could be a frustrating night, although Lithuania’s defeats in Slovakia and the Czech Republic suggest how vulnerable they are.
England, understandably, are very short at 1.11 to win and they’re only just better than evens to win at -2.5. Such games are very difficult to predict because if England were to score early, it could be a crushing victory. If not, though, anxiety could easily set in.
Given the dearth of forwards, though, it seems to make sense to err on the side of lower scoring, perhaps Dutching correct score bets on 2-0, 3-0 and 4-0 at 6.30, 6.25 and 8.00 respectively.