England opportunities knock for Alli, Walcott
Tottenham Hotspur teenager Dele Alli is one of several players hoping to make an impression when England begin their preparations for next year’s European Championships against Estonia on Friday.
England secured their place at Euro 2016 by beating Switzerland 2-0 last month, when Wayne Rooney became his country’s all-time leading scorer, and they will be looking to record a ninth win in nine Group E games in the encounter at Wembley.
With nothing riding on the game, manager Roy Hodgson may use it to test Arsenal forward Theo Walcott in a central role and could also give 19-year-old central midfielder Alli a first taste of senior international football.
“He’s really pushed on,” said goalkeeper Joe Hart of Alli, who signed for Spurs from Milton Keynes Dons for an initial fee of £5 million ($7.6 million, 6.8 million euros) in February and has made four Premier League starts to date this season, scoring once.
“He had a good season last season and Tottenham look like they’ve given him confidence by putting him in their very good side.
“It’s good to get him in and he’s going to be in and around the England squad for a very long time.”
Rooney scored a late free-kick to give England a 1-0 win when the teams last met a year ago in Tallinn; a game overshadowed by the fall-out from Hodgson’s claim that Raheem Sterling had told him he was too tired to play.
Sterling, who is in the squad to face Estonia, revisited the incident in a recent interview with The Guardian in which the Manchester City forward denied saying that he had not wanted to play.
Rooney is a major doubt for Friday’s game after sitting out two training sessions with an ankle injury sustained during Manchester United’s 3-0 defeat at Arsenal last weekend.
But he is due to attend the match even if unfit in order to receive a commemorative golden boot from Bobby Charlton, whose record of 49 goals he surpassed with a penalty against Switzerland.
– ‘There’s an opportunity’ –
Charlton, emblem of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning team, will present Rooney with the memento before kick-off, while a giant flag bearing a picture of the England captain will be passed around by supporters.
Liverpool striker Danny Ings — who, like Alli, is uncapped — is nursing an ankle injury of his own, but Hodgson also has Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Walcott at his disposal.
Walcott has impressed in a central striking role in recent weeks and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger described his display against United as one of the best the 26-year-old has produced during his nine years at the club.
With club-mate Danny Welbeck injured and Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge easing his way back to full fitness following a long lay-off with a hip problem, Walcott is eager to seize a chance to prove himself as a potential long-term partner for Rooney.
“Playing there (up front) for England, that’s what I want to do,” he told a press conference on Wednesday.
“You want to represent your country and I know everyone would like to see me up front, but whether it’s on the left or right… There’s an opportunity there, definitely.”
With two matches of the qualifying campaign remaining, Estonia remain in contention for a place at next year’s tournament in France, but they have little margin for error.
They trail Slovenia by two points in the scramble for third place, which will yield a play-off berth, and if Slovenia defeat Lithuania on Friday and Estonia fail to beat England, Magnus Pehrsson’s side will no longer be able to qualify.
“The chance is tiny and we face two great challenges,” said Pehrsson, whose side finish their campaign at home to Switzerland.
“We need to win at Wembley and at home against Switzerland to make it. We’ll need to prepare ultra well and produce a fantastic performance. Then the chance we’ve been working for will open up.”