Gareth Southgate can’t lose after succeeding Sam Allardyce, but can England win against Malta?
The Three Lions play their second World Cup qualifier for Russia 2018 at Wembley Stadium with a new man in the dugout following last month’s win over Slovakia
Five weeks ago this column opened with “a new era - yes, another one - dawns for England” at the start of World Cup qualifying, and those nine words still hold true following Sam Allardyce’s shock departure after just one match in charge.
If there was a song titled 50 Ways To Leave The England Job, Allardyce managed to find one of the most unusual in allowing himself to be caught up in a corruption sting by a newspaper. You fell for the scam, Sam.
Now it falls to Gareth Southgate to take up a job he declined a few weeks ago on the basis that “it wasn’t something I think I’ve got the experience for”.
As caretaker manager, Southgate is in charge for four matches in a seven-week period and, in a sense, he cannot really lose.
If England veer off course, it will be blamed more on the Allardyce crisis than Southgate and, if they are successful, the new man at the helm will be able to take the credit for steering a steady ship.
Southgate will not escape criticism if England somehow fail to beat Malta on Saturday night (midnight Hong Kong time) , but that is highly unlikely.
The visitors to Wembley opened their qualifying campaign with a 5-1 home defeat by Scotland and they have not taken a single point against a nation currently ranked in the world top 50 for more than seven years. This would have been a gimme for Big Sam in his first home match as England boss.
The more pressing question for punters is the margin of victory for England and it may not be the runaway success many will predict.
Before the Scotland game, Malta had not conceded more than two goals in a competitive match for almost two years and a sending-off with the score at 2-1 was a significant factor in the size of Scotland’s victory.
However, Malta rarely score on the road - seven blanks in their last 10 competitive away games - and this should be a win to nil for England.
Malta’s recent results suggest the score might be at the lower end of the scale, so 2-0 and 3-0 may be worth a shot.
A more difficult and probably more revealing match for England is Tuesday’s away qualifier in Slovenia.
The two countries were in the same group for their last qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 and Slovenia led in both matches before losing 3-1 away and 3-2 at home thanks to an 86th minute goal from Wayne Rooney.
England are the only away team to win a competitive international in Slovenia in the past three and a half years and a repeat looks far from easy.
Last month’s opening 2-2 draw away to Lithuania was out of character for Slovenia, who tend strongly towards low-scoring games as their previous nine internationals had featured two or fewer goals, with both sides scoring in only two of them.
The expectation would be for Slovenia to focus on frustrating England and a tight, low-scoring game looks a distinct possibility.
Draw-England or draw-draw on the HaFu, under 2.5 goals, a half-time score of 0-0 and even a scoreless draw at full-time are bets to consider.
A form line that points the other way is England’s 3-0 away win in Lithuania 12 months ago at the end of Euro 2016 qualifying, which suggests Southgate’s team could win easily when judging that result against Slovenia’s recent draw in Lithuania.
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But most of England’s clear-cut away results have come against teams outside the world top 100 and even some of their recent matches at that low level were a struggle following a 1-0 win in Estonia and 2-2 draw and 1-1 draw in Montenegro.
Another clue in Group F will come when Slovenia host Slovakia. The visitors are the better side on paper, but Slovenia’s recent set of hard-fought matches makes them a good handicap bet and a positive result will set them up well for England’s visit.
Slovenia against Slovakia is one of the most even contests on a typically unbalanced programme of internationals and punters keen to have a bet during the absence of the big European leagues should take a look at League One in England.
The team that catches the eye is Bolton and their away to Swindon. Bolton have stalled in recent weeks, but they are still eighth and have a good chance to pick up their form at Swindon, whose only win since August was against bottom club Oldham.
Rochdale also stand out at home to Southend and Oxford look a decent bet against Wimbledon this weekend.
Poland home win
Worth a shot against Denmark
Bolton on handicap
Should be too strong for Swindon
Rochdale home win
Can extend winning run to six
Slovenia on handicap
Low-scoring but hard to beat
Oxford home win
Home record building up well
Games since England scored more than twice in a match