SOUTHAMPTON, England (Reuters) – England manager Gareth Southgate expects Kosovo to give his side their toughest test so far in the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign when they meet for the first time on Tuesday.
England sauntered through their opening three fixtures against the Czech Republic, Montenegro and Bulgaria, scoring 14 goals and conceding one to sit top of Group A.
Kosovo, given FIFA status in 2016, are 120th in the world rankings but have been unbeaten for 15 matches and are second in the group, a point behind England after two draws and two wins.
They briefly topped the group on Saturday after beating the visiting Czech Republic 2-1 before hosts England crushed Bulgaria 4-0 later in the day with a Harry Kane hat-trick.
“I think this will be the hardest test so far, absolutely,” Southgate, who said he may freshen up his team, told a news conference on Monday.
“I was not surprised by their result against the Czechs, I was expecting Kosovo to win from what I saw of their matches and the level of performance and system.
“Tactically they are good and the team is very well organised. It’s a young nation and it’s clear the passion and spirit for the shirt and for the flag.”
Southgate said all of his squad were fit and available to face Kosovo, who he expects to pose far more of a threat than that offered by Bulgaria at Wembley.
“I think Kosovo will be high pressing, hard working and have more attacking threat than we faced on Saturday,” he said.
“Maybe there will be a bit more space for us to play higher up the pitch but their forwards and their whole team work extremely hard to make life uncomfortable.”
England are unbeaten in their last 42 Euro/World Cup qualifying matches, winning 33 and drawing nine.
Captain Kane will again lead from the front, having moved past Geoff Hurst in the England all-time scoring charts with 25 goals after his treble against Bulgaria.
“It’ safe to say we won’t be dropping him for tomorrow,” Southgate said when asked whether Kane was undroppable.
“His level of performance is so high that dropping him would be a rare occurrence. But we might freshen the team a bit, that will be important.”
Chelsea youngster Mason Mount could get his first start in midfield after coming on as a substitute against Bulgaria, while Liverpool right back Trent Alexander-Arnold could come in.
England are playing at Southampton’s St Mary’s stadium for the first time since 2002.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Ken Ferris)