England has fallen in love with its national football team all over again in 2018.
After years of turgid and sub-par performances on the biggest stages, the Three Lions finished fourth at the 2018 World Cup in Russia during the summer and are now guaranteed at least another fourth place finish in the inaugural UEFA Nations League.
Maybe 2018 could actually be the year that football comes home after all.
Having topped League A Group 4 ahead of Spain and World Cup finalists Croatia, the side who knocked them out at the penultimate hurdle in Russia, England will now compete with Netherlands, Switzerland and Portugal for the right to lift the trophy.
The mini tournament – two semi finals, a third place playoff and a final – will be played in Portugal between 5th and 9th June next year and the victor will scoop the continental bragging rights.
Gareth Southgate, who could be the first England manager to guide the national team to a major international trophy since Alf Ramsey in 1966, of course won’t be picking his squad until the end of the 2018/19 domestic season.
But who would be travelling to Portugal if it was being chosen right now?
It is bizarre to think that Burnley currently have three goalkeepers who have played for England within the last 18 months, but arguably none are deserving of a place in the national team right now. That is because Nick Pope is nursing a long-term injury, Tom Heaton is not first choice at club level and Joe Hart’s chance as England number one has now been and gone.
Instead, Jordan Pickford will retain the number one jersey, with England’s World Cup hero set to get better with age. Behind him, Jack Butland may only be playing Championship football at club level but is still seen as one of the best English stoppers around.
Third choice is a little more difficult, but Alex McCarthy has established himself as a Premier League this season, albeit in a poor Southampton team, and has featured in several squads this season. There are no better options unless Ben Foster ends his international retirement.
John Stones and Harry Maguire have the potential to be England’s preferred centre-back pairing for the next few years, but Liverpool talent Joe Gomez can also make a strong claim to a starting place as well, after missing out on Russia.
Selecting Kyle Walker, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kieran Trippier in the same squad would give plenty of options at right-back, but would also mean there is tactical versatility if, for example, Walker was to play as part of a back three as was the case at the World Cup.
Neither Luke Shaw nor Ben Chilwell were in the World Cup squad, but both have enjoyed strong starts to the season at club level for Manchester United and Leicester respectively.
Although injured right now and forced to withdraw this month, Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson would be an almost certainty to be back in the international fold when fit. He would he joined in the squad by Tottenham pair Eric Dier and Dele Alli, who are now among the most experienced England midfielders around despite a combined age of just 46.
Ross Barkley has made himself impossible to ignore after a resurgent few months under a new regime at Chelsea. Elsewhere, Fabian Delph offers depth, experience and defensive stability, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek is talented and clearly a favourite of Southgate’s.
Jesse Lingard has had injury problems at Manchester United this season, but his goal against the USA this month mimicked his World Cup strike against Panama and showed the quality he possesses, while he also equalised at a key moment against Croatia on Sunday.
Captain Harry Kane scored his first England goal since the winning the World Cup Golden Boot to steer the Three Lions to victory against Croatia and into the Nations League finals. His England record stands at 20 goals in 35 appearances, which puts him on course to break Wayne Rooney’s all-time goal record by the time he reaches his 95th cap.
Raheem Sterling enjoyed a watershed moment in this international career in the win over Spain last month, while Marcus Rashford hasn’t been left out of a senior England squad for over two years going back to September 2016.
Jadon Sancho shone against the United States and continues to perform at a high level for Borussia Dortmund at club level. Callum Wilson is brand new to the senior international stage but he has been scoring goals for Bournemouth and there is no reason why that will not continue for the remainder of the club season as long as he stays fit.
England will learn the identity of their UEFA Nations League semi final opponent when the open draw is made at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin on 3 December 2018.