England out to dispel Euro 2024 doubts against Serbia, Mitrovic ready to shock

football15 June 2024 04:18| © AFP
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Harry Kane © Getty Images

England's attacking arsenal sees them start Euro 2024 as the bookmakers' favourites to end a wait since 1966 to win a major tournament, but some doubts persist over the Three Lions ahead of Sunday's opener against Serbia.

Gareth Southgate's men have won just one of their last five matches – a run that includes a 1-1 draw with North Macedonia and a shock 1-0 home defeat to Iceland in their final warm-up match before flying out to Germany.

England are still expected to cruise through a group that also includes Denmark and Slovenia.

However, a dominant display is required against the Serbs in Gelsenkirchen to settle nerves at the start of another tournament filled with high expectations, but which could still fail to deliver a long-awaited trophy.

- Defensive crisis -

The biggest question over England's credentials to be European champions is at the back as injury has robbed Southgate of his settled back four from previous tournaments.

Harry Maguire failed to make the squad due to a calf problem, while Luke Shaw is included as the only natural left-back despite not having played any minutes for club or country since February.

John Stones is therefore even more crucial as the one experienced centre-back at international tournament level, but the Manchester City man has also been dogged by fitness problems this season.

Kieran Trippier, a right-back by trade, is set to start against Serbia at left-back.

Crystal Palace's Marc Guehi is the leading candidate to partner Stones for his first major tournament start.

England's defensive deficiencies have already been exploited by Brazil, Belgium and Iceland in 2024.

And Serbia have the firepower to hurt them with their powerful strike pairing of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic.

- Attacking balance -

Southgate's paucity of options at the back are compensated by the abundance of weapons in attack.

"England's front six is one of the best if not the best in world football," said former England captain Alan Shearer.

"The players, the talent we have will be a threat for anyone in world football."

Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish and James Maddison failed to even make the 26-man squad.

The quartet of Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka and Harry Kane is the envy of Europe.

However, Southgate is still to find the right balance to help them perform on the international stage to the same level as they have for their clubs this season – the quartet scored a combined 114 goals in club football in the 2023/24 campaign.

Foden won Premier League player of the year accolades this season from a central role but has been shunted out left to accommodate Bellingham as a number 10.

Southgate has so far been reticent to play both in the middle either side of Arsenal's Declan Rice with Chelsea's Conor Gallagher or Trent Alexander-Arnold, who normally operates at right-back for Liverpool, instead set to start in central midfield.

- 'Last chance' for Southgate -

Southgate's tenure has catapulted England back into contention for major honours.

There is plenty to laud from his record of a final, semifinal and quarterfinal from three major tournaments.

However, there are still many in his homeland that doubt his killer instinct to be able to get over the line when it counts.

England were guilty of throwing away early leads in the Euro 2020 final against Italy on home soil and in the 2018 World Cup semifinal when up against a jaded Croatia.

"If we don't win, I probably won't be here anymore. It might be the last chance," Southgate told German publication Bild this week.

Southgate's contract is set to expire at the end of the year, and he is all too aware that the blessing of having such a richly talented squad to choose from also means there will be little allowances made for failing to come home with the trophy this time.


Aleksandar Mitrovic has been one of the Saudi Pro League's most successful imports and the Serbian striker believes he can carry that form into Euro 2024 to shock England on Sunday.

Mitrovic spent eight years in England at Newcastle and Fulham before forcing through a move to the riches and sunnier climes of Saudi 12 months ago.

Amid a flurry of star names headed to the Gulf kingdom, including Al Hilal teammate Neymar, Mitrovic's move largely went under the radar.

But Neymar's serious knee injury left the Serb to spearhead an unbeaten season as Al Hilal won the treble of league, Super Cup and King's Cup – victory in the final of the latter leaving Al Nassr's Cristiano Ronaldo in tears.

The 29-year-old has scored 40 goals in 43 games and far from winding down into retirement in the Middle East, he thinks the move has conditioned him into the best shape of his life, in time for the Euros.

"So far, I've felt the best I've felt in my life — physically and mentally," he told The Times.

"I play a lot more games than I used to play at Fulham and here I play in the best team and I am scoring a lot of goals. I play almost every game. If you put that with a lot of winning then I can continue to play like that for my country."

Already Serbia's all-time top goalscorer by a distance, Mitrovic has netted 58 times in 91 caps.

His partnership with Juventus forward Dusan Vlahovic will be key to how far Serbia can go in Germany in their first-ever European Championship as an independent nation.

England boss Gareth Southgate has admitted his side lack a dominant presence in the air in the absence of the injury Harry Maguire, a weakness that Mitrovic's power looks ripe to exploit.

- England the 'toughest game' -

But based on Serbia's performance in qualifying, there is little for the Three Lions to fear.

Dragan Stojkovic's side won just four of their eight qualifiers, finishing a distant second to Hungary and just three points ahead of neighbours Montenegro.

Mitrovic is aware of the scale of the task facing his nation in Gelsenkirchen.

"If you had to choose the hardest game to play then I think that would be England," he said.

"Consider the talent, their history. It's the toughest game you could ask for but it's a challenge for us. We look forward to it. We have nothing to lose."

Yet, he also knows the physical toll that a Premier League season can take, which is one of the factors behind England's 58-year wait to win a major tournament.

Mitrovic said he had "nothing left to give" after attracting criticism for the manner in which he pushed through an exit from Fulham 12 months ago.

"When you play a lot of years in the best league in the world you are just mentally and physically exhausted.

"One year in England is like two or three years in a different league in the world."

Refreshed and filled with confidence by his Saudi stay, Mitrovic is now hoping to make himself a national hero and atone for Serbia missing out on the Euros three years ago.

He missed the decisive penalty in a shoot-out defeat to Scotland that saw Serbia miss out on Euro 2020.

They also bowed out in the group stages of the last two World Cups, and this could be a final chance to make an impact on an international tournament for the talented trio of Mitrovic, Fenerbahce's Dusan Tadic and former Serie A star Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.