England have World Cup places up for grabs -- Southgate
Gareth Southgate has told England's World Cup hopefuls there are still places up for grabs as he prepares to finalise his squad for the tournament in Russia.
Southgate must submit his 23-man squad for the World Cup no later than June 4, but the England manager would ideally prefer to finalise his selection before the friendly against Nigeria on June 2.
Southgate wants his final World Cup group together for the warm-up games against Nigeria and Costa Rica, which means Tuesday's friendly against Italy at Wembley represents a significant milestone in the fight to secure a seat on the plane to Russia.
After England's solid 1-0 friendly win over Holland on Friday, Southgate is planning to make several changes against Italy, giving his fringe players one of their last chances to stake their claim.
"It's not too late for anybody. We will still be monitoring everyone until the end of the season," Southgate told reporters at England's north London training base on Monday.
"There are 31 or 32 players that will be in contention and no one knows what will happen over the next few weeks.
"In lots of positions we've got really good options, players we know would come in and do well. We have to get the balance right.
"It's important we have competition all over the pitch, the additional pressure of knowing you have to play well to retain your place, that takes players to another level."
One of the most intriguing selection battles is between Jack Butland, Jordan Pickford and Joe Hart for the goalkeeper's jersey.
Everton's Pickford started against Holland, keeping his second clean-sheet in two appearances, but Southgate confirmed Stoke's Butland will begin the Italy match.
Joe Hart is also a contender but he has dropped down the pecking order after struggling with West Ham.
"Jack will play in goal. I wanted to give him and Jordan a game each for the experience," Southgate said.
"I can't predict if Joe will play for England before the World Cup.
"It's up to the goalkeepers to perform well in the last six or seven matches, and we'll take decisions from there."
- Low expectations -
Once Southgate has settled on his final squad, he will turn his attention to England's group stage matches against Tunisia, Panama and Belgium.
Expectations are low among England fans after years of underachievement in major tournaments, but Southgate is adamant his team are heading in the right direction.
"What is more pleasing is the way the players are starting to adapt to the system. We were more fluid with the ball, we played with more freedom. there were really good signs of that on Friday," he said.
"We have to allow this young team to go and perform, there are some super exciting young players.
"They have to grow together, they dont have 50 or 100 caps. We have to give them space to do that.
"I know people don't always want to do that, but if we want to go further in the tournament than our ranking shows we have to allow them that."
One of the key figures for England at the World Cup is likely to be Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling.
After starting the season with his place at City in doubt, Sterling has emerged as a significant threat for the Premier League leaders, but he has yet to hit the same heights with England.
"I feel established with England, but I'm still young. I'm always trying to develop," he said.
"With the City aspect, and (City boss) Pep (Guardiola), he's been fantastic with me."
"It hasn't benefitted England at all yet. I haven't got to the level I want."
© 2018 AFP