England have slight issues at left-back, with Ryan Bertrand suffering a hamstring injury during Saturday’s win over Malta. Danny Rose was initially rested for that game with a tight hamstring but should be fit enough to start in Ljubljana having got through 71 minutes at Wembley without ill effects. Kieran Gibbs has been called up as cover.
Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana and Harry Kane are all still absent.
Slovenia are without the Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Kevin Kampl, who has pronounced himself “tired” following an infection, while the St Etienne forward Robert Beric is injured and will probably be replaced by Roman Bezjak.
England remain imperious in qualifiers. Saturday’s 2-0 win over Malta took them to 14 wins in a row in qualifiers, although that means little in terms of the general perception. Memories of the defeat to Iceland at the Euros will haunt England for a long time. Some saw signs of improved movement and speed of thought against Malta, but it was only 2-0.
Slovenia, meanwhile, have one of the strongest squads in their history, featuring six players who play in the Champions League, but there is a sense that they are not quite delivering on that potential. Many blame the manager, Srecko Katanec, who has a habit of falling out with gifted players. Kampl’s absence is seen as being part of that same pattern. A draw against Lithuania in their opening qualifier was a setback, but they responded with a 1-0 home win over Slovakia on Saturday.
England and Slovenia have met four times in the past, with England winning all four games. Fabio Capello’s side won 2-1 in a friendly at Wembley in 2009 and then 1-0 at the 2010 World Cup. Then in the qualifiers for the Euros, Roy Hodgson’s England were 3-1 winners at Wembley before a pulsating 3-2 victory in Ljubljana in June 2015, Jack Wilshere scoring twice before Wayne Rooney’s late winner.
England surely won’t be as attacking in Ljubjlana as they were at home against Malta, fielding Rooney and Dele Alli alongside Jordan Henderson in the centre of midfield. Eric Dier will probably return alongside Henderson with Rooney seemingly set to miss out, a huge call for Gareth Southgate but one that has been coming for a while. As Graeme Souness has pointed out, he still doesn’t seem to have the positional instincts of a central midfielder. But if he plays higher up the pitch, the sense is that he slows the game down too much. But perhaps the most damaging aspect recently is simply that he keeps being talked about, a low background hum that appears to have had an impact on his form.
THE ILICIC THREAT
Last time England played in Ljubljana, Katanec’s beef was with Josip Ilicic, but the Fiorentina playmaker is back in the fold and playing well. In the Slovenian structure, he sometimes appears almost as a second striker alongside Beric or Bezjak, but he has licence to drift wide and deep. Henderson has played well at the back of midfield for Liverpool this season, but he is not a natural anchor and how he deals with Ilicic will both say much about his development and to a large degree govern how threatening Slovenia will be.
Assuming Katanec goes in with a similar shape to that which he used against Slovakia, Slovenia are likely to be very narrow. Rene Krhin sits just in front of the back four, with Jasmin Kurtic, Walter Birsa and Benjamin Verbic in front of him. That’s the platform that gives Ilicic licence to roam, but it also means there is little protection for the full-backs. Slovenia, in essence, cede the flanks to their opponents and trust the two central defenders, Bostjan Cesar and Miral Samardzic, to win any crosses that are slung in. Where opponents will fall down is if they try to play too intricately through a packed centre – and that’s the real danger for England if Rooney plays. The way to break down Slovenia is either with accurate crossing or with swift incisive attacks coming inside from the flanks.
For all the talk of discontent in the camp, Slovenia played well against an admittedly supine Slovakia on Saturday and at 5.50 look too long against an England side that has spent most of the year struggling to break down solid opponents. Last time they met, Slovenia were extremely unfortunate not to get at least a point, and there’s little reason to expect a radically different game this time.
Slovenia +0.5 at 2.28 looks the way to go.