16 December 2021

Gareth Southgate keen to test England against European heavyweights

16 December 2021

Gareth Southgate says the “fire is burning” inside his England players as they prepare to face two European heavyweights in the build-up to next year’s World Cup.

The Three Lions will have the opportunity to exact revenge on Italy in next year’s Nations League after the Azzurri denied England on penalties in the Euro 2020 final in July.

They will also meet up again with Germany, who they beat 2-0 in the last 16 of that tournament, and Hungary, who they faced in qualification for the finals in Qatar.

Southgate believes the level of opposition is perfect for England in what could be a huge year for his team.

“The Nations League and its format is geared towards these types of games and whoever we drew out of the first two pots were going to be high level opposition, so that is what we wanted leading into a World Cup year,” he told the Football Association’s media team.

“We have had a tough fixture schedule through the last 12 months but the high quality of games is what helps the team to improve and they are the matches we have learned the most from.”

He added in a separate interview with tournament organisers UEFA: “What the summer gave us was the confidence that we got to where we did, but also we retain the hunger that we haven’t got to where we want to get to yet.

“I think that fire is burning in our group of players. We showed that immediately in the September (World Cup qualifiers) that followed, winning in Budapest and getting a draw in Warsaw.

“We had two very complicated fixtures that we responded to really well. I think we would feel that we have still got everything to prove in those big games and to play Italy again is a great challenge.”

Raheem Sterling was targeted for abuse during England’s last match away to Hungary in September (Attila Trenka/PA) (PA Wire)

Four of the Nations League matches are set to be played in June, with the final two in September and the finals in June 2023.

The fixture schedule is set to be confirmed on Friday morning, with England’s first home game to be played behind closed doors after UEFA sanctioned the FA over the chaos at the Euro 2020 final against Italy.

Raheem Sterling and Jude Bellingham faced racist abuse when England faced Hungary in Budapest in September.

The football authorities were criticised for allowing fans to be at the match. UEFA imposed a two-match stadium ban on the Hungarian federation after homophobic and racist behaviour at all three of their Euro 2020 matches in the summer, but that did not apply to the World Cup qualifier against England, which was a FIFA competition.

The UEFA ban will kick in for Hungary’s first two home matches in the Nations League.

The match between England and Hungary at Wembley in October was also marred by crowd trouble. Hungary fans clashed with police after officers entered the stand to arrest an individual for a racially-aggravated public order offence in relation to comments directed at a steward.

Wales, promoted to League A following the 2020-21 Nations League competition, face tough opposition in the shape of Belgium, Holland and Poland.

The Belgians are familiar opponents for Wales. The sides faced each other in qualification for next year’s World Cup, with Belgium topping Group E and Wales finishing second to earn a play-off tie next March.

Belgium and Wales met in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers (David Davies/PA) (PA Wire)

Wales also famously beat Belgium to reach the semi-finals of Euro 2016.

Scotland and the Republic of Ireland were drawn together in League B, having last played each other during qualification for Euro 2016. Scotland won 1-0 at home, while the return match in Dublin finished 1-1.

Steve Clarke’s side have also been drawn against Euro 2020 quarter-finalists Ukraine, who they face in a play-off semi-final in March for a place in Qatar. The other team in the group are Armenia.

Northern Ireland, who were relegated to League C in the 2020-21 competition, face 2004 European champions Greece in Group C2. They also face Kosovo and the winner of the playout tie between Cyprus and Estonia, which will be played in March next year.

Northern Ireland won their two most recent competitive meetings with Greece, en route to qualification for Euro 2016.

A decision on whether, and how, the 2022-23 Nations League will slot into qualifying for Euro 2024 will be taken when the regulations for that tournament are fixed next June.

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