Dazzling Jack Grealish gives Gareth Southgate more selection headaches over England front three

·4-min read
 (Pool via REUTERS)
(Pool via REUTERS)

No country will head into the Euros with a more fearsome centre-forward than England, but the area that for so long appeared to be the Three Lions' overwhelming strength is increasingly one of major concern to manager Gareth Southgate.

A front three of Harry Kane, flanked by Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling looked set in stone; an attack around which to build genuine hopes of success this summer.

But ahead of Sunday's Group D opener against Croatia, only Kane could be considered a certain starter, based on current form and his performances throughout an exhausting season.

While captain-for-the-day Rashford's winning penalty against Romania yesterday has probably just about ensured his place, Southgate is in danger of falling into the trap of picking reputation over reality.

The Manchester United striker has not kicked on over the past 12 months. Ongoing fitness issues have been a factor and could see him undergo shoulder surgery before the start of next season. While that is mitigation for his return of just 11 Premier League goals, it is also evidence of why he should not walk straight into England's starting XI.

Going into yesterday's game at the Riverside, the feeling was that he needed a big performance to cement his place. He scored the decisive goal from the spot but ran down blind alleys on too many occasions as England's quality in the final third was found wanting against a deep-lying defence.

In contrast, it was Jack Grealish who asked the most questions and won the penalty, while Jadon Sancho hit the bar with a flash of brilliance in the first half. That pair, along with Phil Foden, are the reason why England have such a depth of talent in attack, but no longer should they be considered supporting acts.

Sterling's club form has plummeted to such depths that his inclusion against Croatia would now be considered as much a surprise as him starting for Manchester City in last month's Champions League Final.

City boss Pep Guardiola is open to selling the 26-year-old this summer — and if he is to use the Euros as a shop window, it will surely be from the bench to begin with.

Sterling's place must go to newly-crowned PFA Young Player of the Year, Foden, who could well be the jewel in England's crown — a modern-day answer to Paul Gascoigne who will strike more fear into the hearts of defenders than Sterling at this point.

The suspicion is that Rashford will cling on to his place on the left, but Grealish is breathing down his neck.

The Aston Villa playmaker got through a full 90 minutes at the Riverside after lasting 71 against Austria last week.

Grealish's fitness has been the concern for Southgate after an injury-disrupted end to the campaign — and how he recovers this week will tell the England boss much about his ability to withstand the rigours of tournament football.

He has clearly made an impression in these two warm-up games, with the decision to play him in midfield suggesting Southgate is juggling with ideas about how to use a potential wildcard.

To get Grealish into a starting XI alongside a front three would be a bold move, especially with Mason Mount also included in midfield. Add in Foden in attack and England would have three supremely technically gifted players on the field, all capable of running with the ball. It would be an exciting statement of intent at the start of a tournament.

It would also see Southgate pack his team with ball-playing midfielders, which has so long been England's shortcoming, not least in the last World Cup, when Croatia passed them into submission in the semi-final. How fitting it would be for Southgate to unveil a new-look Three Lions against the same opponents.

Yet Grealish's likeliest inclusion if he is to start England's opener, is up front, where Rashford stands in his way.

Perhaps, in Southgate's eyes, Rashford has enough credit in the bank to warrant a start. He would not be the first player to head into a tournament in search of form only to ignite on the big stage. Alan Shearer and Euro 96 spring to mind.

But if Southgate is to harbour serious ambitions of success, he will have to make those difficult calls and prove to his players that no one's position is safe. Grealish can expect to give him some restless nights this week.

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