England have been given favourable draws on their way to recent major tournaments and that has not changed for the 2022 World Cup. Poland will battle it out for top spot in the group but the other sides should not cause too many problems for Gareth Southgate’s team. England kick off their qualifying campaign against San Marino on Thursday, before a potential banana skin in Albania on Sunday afternoon and a home match against Poland on Tuesday night, with matches against Andorra and Hungary to come in the autumn. Although the quality of the opposing teams is modest, some individuals could cause England problems. Here are 10 players England should be wary of, starting with the obvious and unavoidable.
Robert Lewandowski, Poland
Robert Lewandowski is becoming more and more prolific with age. The 32-year-old scored another hat-trick for Bayern Munich at the weekend, surpassing last season’s sensational 34-goal haul to move on to 35 in the league alone. With eight matches left to play, he is now five goals short of Gerd Müller’s all-time record of 40 goals in a Bundesliga season. After a relatively modest start to his international career, Lewandowski has scored 45 goals in 56 caps since 2014. He has the highest WhoScored league rating this season (8.05) for any player in the Uefa division of World Cup qualifying.
Peter Gulacsi, Hungary
Nicknamed “The Wall” at RB Leipzig, Peter Gulacsi has emerged as one of Europe’s finest goalkeepers in recent years and will be hoping to show that when Hungary welcome England to Budapest in early September. Only five keepers in Europe’s top five leagues have kept more clean sheets this season than his tally of 13 (Mike Maignan, Ederson, Édouard Mendy, Jan Oblak and Emiliano Martínez). Gulacsi has played 26 times in the Bundesliga this season, meaning he has kept a clean sheet in 50% of his appearances. With Gulacsi protected by defenders such as his clubmate Willi Orban, Hungary are unbeaten in six heading into the campaign.
Berat Djimsiti, Albania
Like Hungary, Albania are no mugs defensively, with a strong Serie A contingent both in goal and the backline. Napoli defender Elseid Hysaj was previously considered the star name but Atalanta centre-back Berat Djimsiti has made real strides in recent years. His reading of the game and concentration levels are important in a free-flowing club side, averaging 2.4 interceptions per 90 minutes. He is also excellent in the air and strong in physical battles with opposing strikers.
Piotr Zielinski, Poland
Having been linked with some of England’s top clubs earlier in his career, Piotr Zielinski made the move to Napoli in 2016 and has become a mainstay in the side for the last three seasons. That said, the attack-minded midfielder hadn’t really made the progress many expected until this season, but he seems to be back to his best of late, with three goals and three assists in his last seven appearances. The 26-year-old has had a direct hand in 12 goals in just 22 Serie A starts this season. He is also averaging twice as many completed dribbles as in the two previous seasons.
Dominik Szoboszlai, Hungary
Given that Dominik Szoboszlai is currently unavailable due to injury, Gareth Southgate would no doubt have preferred to face Hungary in this month’s break. The youngster poses a big threat in what is a relatively ordinary attacking lineup elsewhere. The 20-year-old has not played since he moved to RB Leipzig in January due to adductor problems but he packs a real punch from distance – as he displayed in the Champions League group stage for Salzburg. He is extremely confident in his own ability and Hungary will miss the spark he provides in their opener with Poland in particular.
Marash Kumbulla, Albania
Albania have an extremely promising centre-back due in the form of Marash Kumbulla and the aforementioned Djimsiti. Having impressed in the second half of last season in particular with Verona, the 21-year-old earned a move to Roma last summer. Even though he has struggled to nail down a regular starting place at his new club, he has impressed when picked, especially in the Europa League. He is strong in the air if rash in the tackle at times, but he has the potential to be a leading light for his nation in the years to come.
Armando Broja, Albania
Armando Broja is currently on loan from Chelsea at Vitesse Arnhem, where he is enjoying his temporary home as so many Blues academy stars have in the past. The striker was born in Slough to Albanian parents and traded the youth set-up at Tottenham for their cross-city rivals at the age of eight. Earmarked as a real talent for some time, he is proving as much in the Eredivisie with nine goals and two assists from just 1,383 minutes of playing time, making him the most prolific teenager in European top-flight football.
Attila Szalai, Hungary
Attila Szalai arrived in Fenerbahçe in January in the shadow of Mesut Özil, but it’s safe to say that the Hungarian has had a significantly greater impact at the club so far. Slotting into the defence immediately, both in his natural centre-back position and at left-back, the 23-year-old is another member of a resolute Hungarian defence. In 11 Super Lig appearances this season, Szalai has won more than 70% of his aerial duels and averaged the most passes per game at the club (56.5).
Jakub Moder, Poland
It was a while coming for Jakub Moder to make his first Premier League start for Brighton but he did not disappoint against Newcastle despite playing out of position on the left. He naturally operates as a deep-lying midfielder, where he has the ability to win possession and then drive forwards with the ball. The 21-year-old has already started three times for Poland and even opened his international account against Ukraine in November. He promises to be a long-term successor to Grzegorz Krychowiak but has the chance to make a more immediate breakthrough under new Poland coach Paulo Sousa.
Sebastian Szymanski, Poland
A mainstay in the Russian Premier League with Dinamo Moscow at just 21, Sebastian Szymanski is a versatile and hard-working playmaker who is very much seen as a future Poland regular. Having been deployed on either wing at international level so far, like Moder he will be hoping to convince Sousa of his ability to adopt a central position. He ranks second in Russia’s top flight this season for both tackles (53) and key passes (54).