England vs Montenegro Preview: Euro 2020 on the horizon as Three Lions mark 1,000th game
Photo: Getty Images

Such is the sheer expectation for England to qualify for major tournaments, combined with a series of sub-plots developed throughout the last few days, the likely scenario of England securing a place at Euro 2020 on Thursday evening against Montenegro has been brushed deep under the radar.

In a momentous occasion with England marking 1,000 international matches, the Three Lions need just one point to qualify for next summer's tournament and, in the unlikely scenario they are defeated, Gareth Southgate's side will still qualify by the end of the night if Czech Republic defeat Kosovo in Group A.

Yet the build-up to what should be a double celebration has been tarnished by an unsavoury media frenzy that has seen Raheem Sterling dropped from the side after a 'disturbance' with  Joe Gomez.

Sterling in the spotlight

When England were dumped out of the World Cup semi-finals 16 months ago by Croatia, Southgate was lavished as a national hero. However, with the next major tournament on the horizon, the England boss has come under major scrutiny despite losing just two games since that competition.

Despite his best efforts to concentrate on the football, Southgate has been grilled from all angles about his decision to drop Sterling. Some say the punishment was harsh, others suggest the Man City star should have been dropped from the camp altogether and a handful have questioned Gomez' role in the incident.

Southgate just wants to focus on his 'family' of England players. There is a football match to play after all.

November is Black History Month and the FA have invited every former England player of colour back to Wembley as they mark the momentous occasion. It is perhaps ironic that the figurehead of the current team in the fight against racism will not be on the pitch.

Sterling was the man who stood firm in the face of vicious chants the last time England played Montenegro, back in March. The starlet scored the final goal in a 5-1 drubbing and celebrated by cupping his ears and staring directly at those targeting abuse at England's black players.

Racism was also the headline the last time England played - everyone hopes it isn't the story again as Montenegro fans make the long trip to London.

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"It's a team that will excite people"

Ross Barkley starred during the away fixture eight months ago, netting a double. But such is the talent at Southgate's disposal that the Chelsea midfielder probably wouldn't have made the starting eleven even before his withdrawal through injury.

Dean Henderson has been drafted in to replace the injured Tom Heaton, whilst there are opportunities for the likes of Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham.

James Maddison is also back in the squad after being pictured in a casino after leaving the last England camp due to illness.

But Jordan Henderson is suspended and Fabian Delph has withdrawn so England have been left with a very youthful squad.

Southgate told the media, "The line-up against Spain was one of the youngest for decades and I think we are going to be even younger than that."

He added, "I think it's a team that will excite people."

But we have seen young English teams buckle under the weight of expectation before.

Visiting woes

Despite scoring first the last time they met, Montenegro are likely to offer very little threat to England.

They have just three points in the group, are yet to win in their last nine qualification matches and have never beaten England in five attempts - the Three Lions have only been defeated by 37 countries across their last 999 matches.

Failing to score in their last four qualification games, compared to England who have netted at least three in five of the last six, Montenegro's side has been ravished by injuries and withdrawals.

Four senior defenders are unavailable, including Atletico Madrid's Stefan Savic and Lazio's Adam Marusic, whilst Partizan midfielder Aleksandar Šćekic has also withdrawn. Only one defender in the squad has more than ten caps.

History overshadowed again

England are likely to win comfortably, perhaps in the region of a four, five or six goal margin.

But the build-up to the momentous occasion threatens to underpin the revolving cyclical pattern that has overshadowed England's last 999 matches.

Needless managerial pressure, disproportionate media scrutiny and a fear to celebrate achievements on the stepping stones to success such as major competition qualification.

England will qualify, sooner or later, and the Southgate - Sterling - Gomez situation will be buried...until the next storm from a raindrop threatens to derail another 1,000 England games.

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