Gareth Southgate says he will not put England players at risk on a pitch that was described as “dangerous” by the last team to use it. The surface at the Tose Proeski Arena has been completely relaid since Italy’s 1-1 draw here in September but has not been tested fully since then.
Italian midfielder Ciro Immobile said “Playing on a pitch like this could be dangerous,” after the earlier qualifier and even North Macedonia player Eljif Elmas apologised to “all Italians” for “a truly embarrassingly poor pitch”. UEFA had initially banned the pitch in August ahead of European club competitions but even now concerns remain.
“I know they’ve relaid it,” Southgate said. “I would imagine it hasn’t quite knitted, but we’ll see. We wouldn’t take any chances with players but Premier League managers would be worried about their players whether there was a pitch issue or not.”
Although at first glance the surface looks in good condition, the concern is that the turf will cut up due to the heavy rains in the area in recent days. That has not been the only issue with the venue in the past. Back in September 2020, Tottenham Hotspur beat KF Shkendija 3-1 in a Europa League clash.
Meanwhile, Southgate told his England stars he wants to put them on top of the world after a surprising new target has emerged for the Three Lions. While the nation remains fixated on finally ending all the years of hurt with some major silverware, Southgate believes climbing to the top of the official FIFA World Rankings the belief they need finally to become serial trophy winners.
Brazil are currently third with 1812.2 ranking points, just four points ahead of England in the last tables published by FIFA. However, they lost to Colombia on Friday while England were beating Malta, so that could all be set to change.
“Qualification is done,” Southgate said. “With the games at the weekend, we might be ranked third in the world at the minute. But we’re two places off where we need to be so we can’t waste games. If we’re going to be a top team, then the level of performance has got to be spot on every time.
“Ultimately you achieve top spot through consistency and you’ve got to play well in the tournaments as well because the ranking points are higher in the tournaments.
“Also, it sets behaviours every day on the training pitch, off the training pitch. If you are going to be the top ranked team, there’s no room for sloppiness or casualness. That’s got to be our drive.”
If England can cling on to third place – Argentina (1861.29) and France (1853.11) are currently one and two – it will be the first year they have finished the year in the top three since the system began in 1992.
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It is a height they only reached briefly at any point in the year during August and September 2012 and again in September 2021 shortly after England’s European Championships final defeat.
More points are awarded for wins in major competitions and qualifiers so England could still top the pile by the summer with a successful Euro 2024
Jarrod Bowen and Kieran Tripper both missed the final trip of this year with injury.
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