New era for old England: Sam Allardyce’s charges face Slovakia in opening Fifa World Cup qualifier
The Three Lions are out to put their disappointing Euro 2015 exit at the hands of Iceland behind them and make a positive start on the road to Russia 2018
A new era - yes, another one - dawns for England on Monday morning (HK time) when Sam Allardyce takes charge for the first time in a World Cup qualifier away to familiar rivals Slovakia.
A little over two months ago, the two sides were locked together in a goalless draw at Euro 2016, but within a week of that contest, both had been knocked out.
Slovakia lost 3-0 to Germany and then, in one of the shocks of the tournament, England slumped to a 2-1 defeat against Iceland.
That abject performance opened the door for Allardyce to achieve his long-held ambition of managing England and in he stepped to replace Roy Hodgson.
Little else has changed, however, as Allardyce’s first 23-man squad featured only five players who did not go to Euro 2016 - and two of them are already well past 30 caps.
That suggests Allardyce was happy enough with the squad Hodgson took to France, but believes he can make the difference by raising the level of performance.
Watch: Sam Allardyce’s first England training session
Allardyce cannot better the perfect 10 achieved by Hodgson’s side in Euro qualifying, which means he will have to wait until the summer of 2018 and the World Cup finals in Russia to prove he has moved England forward.
Of course, as unlikely as it seems, the answer will come much sooner if Allardyce is a total disaster and fails to qualify for the World Cup.
The last time that happened was in 1993 when England missed out on the following year’s finals under Graham Taylor - renowned, like Allardyce, for a long-ball approach.
Allardyce will be keen to dispel that image and prove he is a more sophisticated coach than most people believe, although pragmatism is likely to feature highly in his thinking.
That is already evident in his rejection of the mercurial talents of Ross Barkley and the promotion of the steadier influences of Danny Drinkwater and West Ham United’s Michail Antonio, who is the one uncapped player in the squad.
Allardyce also sees no reason to take the captain’s armband from Wayne Rooney, a decision that arguably highlights the need for other players to step up as leaders within the squad.
One former player argued on the radio in England this week that Rooney is the right choice as captain because of his ability to lead by example in times of difficulty, but that is precisely what he failed to do against Iceland in the summer when he dropped too deep and made more misplaced passes than any other outfield player.
Virtually the only thing Hodgson did not try against Iceland was to bring on Barkley, whose dribbling ability might have found some holes in the defence that passing alone could not open up.
Even if he had lost the ball a few times, Iceland were so intent on defending that their threat on the counter-attack was limited.
Watch: Michail Antonio’s brilliant England call-up story
There were no guarantees at that stage with Barkley, who had lost his form for Everton late last season and did not play a single minute at Euro 2016, but he already looks better under new manager Ronald Koeman and his omission by Allardyce is surprising.
Overall, it would be difficult to argue England lack the talent to do well in a big tournament.
Four of Allardyce’s squad were named in the PFA team of the season for 2015-16, which is a considerable achievement given the number of foreign players in the PremIer League. Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane were also at the top of the scoring charts.
Slovakia, needing only a point to qualify for the knockout stage, were happy to sit back against toothless England at Euro 2016 but Allardyce expects they will have to attack more this time at home.
Sam springs surprises: Michail Antonio in, Ross Barkley out as Allardyce names his first England squad
That should give England opportunities to extend their winning run to six in away qualifiers, with their last defeat on the road in a competitive fixture coming 15 matches ago in the Ukraine in October 2009, although that result did not matter to them as they had already qualified for the next summer’s World Cup.
On that basis, England look decent value at the odds, although it is worth noting that Slovakia - who have stuck with coach Jan Kozak - beat Spain two years ago in their first home qualifier for Euro 2016.
A narrow England win, perhaps 1-0 or 2-0, looks likely.
Elsewhere, it is difficult to find attractive bets among the mismatches and the heavy favourites.
The pick might be Ukraine, who host newly popular Iceland. This will be a big comedown for Iceland after their summer success and Ukraine is always a tough place to visit.
Watch: Eric Dier on Sam Allardyce: “Fresh start for everyone”