England open Allardyce era with Slovakia reunion
Trnava (Slovakia) (AFP)
Sam Allardyce's tenure as England manager begins on Sunday when his side launch their bid to reach the 2018 World Cup against former Euro 2016 foes Slovakia in Trnava.
Allardyce, 61, was handed the role he had long coveted after Roy Hodgson stepped down in the immediate aftermath of England's humiliating Euro 2016 elimination by Iceland.
It was England's most dismal loss since a 1-0 defeat by the part-timers of the United States at the 1950 World Cup, but Allardyce believes the experience will make his young team stronger.
"For me it is about going out and the players showing not just how passionate they are, but how skilful they are at international level," he told reporters this week.
"We were the youngest squad at the Euros and I think the experience they have gained in that tournament -- some of them for the first time -- will give them a better determination and next time round they will be much better."
England would not have encountered Iceland in France had it not been for a frustrating 0-0 draw against Slovakia in Saint-Etienne in their final group game.
Hodgson received a torrent of criticism after making six changes for the match, in which England failed to score despite dominating proceedings.
Several players who lined up in England red at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on June 20 have seen their statuses change significantly in the two months and two weeks since.
Goalkeeper Joe Hart is now on loan at Torino after being frozen out by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.
He at least got a place in Allardyce's first squad, unlike Everton's Ross Barkley and new Bournemouth loanee Jack Wilshere, both of whom were overlooked.
Chris Smalling, an ever-present at centre-back throughout the Euro, is not currently getting in Manchester United's team and Daniel Sturridge has had to get used to a watching brief at Liverpool.
Ryan Bertrand, the left-back in Saint-Etienne, is injured and 18-year-old sensation Marcus Rashford has dropped to the Under-21s after seeing his place taken by Zlatan Ibrahimovic at United.
- Rooney record -
But Raheem Sterling, lambasted for his performances in France, is in the form of his life at Manchester City and, like his new club-mate John Stones, is a strong contender for a starting role.
West Ham United midfielder Michail Antonio, meanwhile, could win his first cap.
Captain Wayne Rooney is to be used in the number 10 role, having laboured in midfield at the Euro, and has vowed that this qualifying campaign will be his last.
Already his country's record goal-scorer, Rooney will earn his 116th cap at Trnava's Stadion Antona Malatinskeho, taking him past David Beckham as England's most capped outfield player.
Slovakia coach Jan Kozak, whose side fell to Germany in the last 16 at the Euro, has also made adjustments to his squad.
Goalkeeper Jan Mucha and winger Miroslav Stoch missed the cut, the latter after falling out with Kozak, Stanislav Sestak has retired from international football and several players are injured.
Kozak has called up two uncapped players in MSK Zilina winger Jakub Holubek and Dukla Prague holding midfielder Jakub Povazanec.
But the core of his starting XI is likely to remain unchanged, built around Fenerbahce centre-back Martin Skrtel, AC Milan midfielder Juraj Kucka and Napoli playmaker Marek Hamsik.
"There were a lot of players in their thirties in the squad, so there is a generation problem awaiting us in the future," said Kozak.
"Since the Euro there has not been a lot of time for experimenting (with new players), because there is immediately a big start against England."
As in Euro 2016 qualifying, when they won 2-0 at Switzerland in their opening game, England are beginning a qualification campaign with what appears to be their most difficult fixture.
With only the top team guaranteed to qualify from Group F, which also features Slovenia, Lithuania, Malta and old enemies Scotland, Allardyce can ill afford a false start.
© 2016 AFP