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England stars with a point to prove at the Nations League in the countdown to the World Cup

The World Cup may have been pushed back to winter but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any international football to catch over the summer.

Granted, the Nations League doesn’t quite catch the imagination as much as football’s ultimate showpiece but for some England stars it could be just as important in terms of their international careers.

With four Nations League encounters in June for England against highly respectable opposition in Italy, Germany and Hungary (twice) there are some golden chances to show boss Gareth Southgate why they should be in contention for the World Cup that gets underway in November.

There are just six games to go between now and when the squad is picked and with four of those this month, it’s a crucial time for players already part of the set-up to show why they are still worthy of a spot, while newcomers can stake a claim for a place in Qatar.

Sportsmail looks at the England stars in the summer squad who face a crucial month in the countdown to the World Cup.

The England manager will be keeping a close eye on a few of his players in the Nations League

The England manager will be keeping a close eye on a few of his players in the Nations League

Harry Maguire (Manchester United)

It’s arguable but perhaps no player has a bigger point to prove than the Manchester United captain who has endured a torrid campaign with the Red Devils.

The centre-back has been made one of the most prominent scapegoats for United’s torrid season that had promised a Premier League title fight but ended trophyless with a final day scrape into the Europa League as part of a sixth place finish.

Maguire even lost his place during the season amid the public criticism he has faced from pundits and fans on social media over his downturn in club form, yet he has never really let his country down.

On the contrary. England’s record over the last year has been excellent defensively – despite being controversially jeered by his own fans in a March friendly against Ivory Coast.

In his last 10 games that stretch back to Euro 2020 last summer, England have conceded just three goals with him at centre-back.

For Gareth Southgate, he should have nothing to prove and yet he may have to show everyone a reminder during the Nations League that he has been an important part of England’s recent revival on the international stage.

Harry Maguire impresses for England but poor Manchester Utd form puts him under pressure

Harry Maguire impresses for England but poor Manchester Utd form puts him under pressure

Harry Maguire impresses for England but poor Manchester Utd form puts him under pressure

Marc Guehi (Crystal Palace)

Maguire’s poor run of course opens the door for an alternative and Marc Guehi will be hoping for an opportunity to add to his one cap and stake a claim for a regular place in the squad.

Guehi left Chelsea for Crystal Palace last summer in an £18million move and he has quickly settled into Patrick Vieira’s side at Selhurst Park.

Despite only winning one cap, an advantage for Guehi is that Southgate will already have a fair understanding of his strengths and weaknesses due to his progression through the England youth levels from the Under 16s right up until Under 21 level where he has collected 16 caps.

He was awarded his debut in the 2-1 win over Switzerland in March, and the England boss was impressed by his ‘composed’ defending and may be tempted to play him more with Ivory Coast also interested.

Southgate said: ‘He’s a player that doesn’t necessarily grab your attention because he is always in the right position and he is so calm so you don’t see the last-ditch challenges or the rash moments.

‘I thought that was what he did today. Really composed with his defending and the ball.’

Marc Guehi can expect opportunities at centre-back at this summer's Nations League matches

Marc Guehi can expect opportunities at centre-back at this summer's Nations League matches

Marc Guehi can expect opportunities at centre-back at this summer’s Nations League matches

Fikayo Tomori (AC Milan)

Out of the spotlight of the Premier League, but very much thriving in Serie A, Fikayo Tomori is back on the radar at international level.

It’s been an excellent season for the former Chelsea defender, who has been an important centre-back for AC Milan on their way to winning Serie A for the first time in 11 years while conceding just 31 goals – a tally not bettered by any other Serie A side. 

In fact Milan lost just once across his 30 starts across the league campaign and it’s no surprise to see him back on the England scene and now looking to add to his two caps.

He has been in and out of the squad since his 2019 debut – including missing out on the Euro 2020 finals last summer.

These end of season Nations League clashes though offer an opportunity to show not just what Southgate what he can offer at international level, but also remind England fans who are not up to speed with their Italian football as to why he should be in consideration for a World Cup spot. 

Fikayo Tomori has played an important role in helping AC Milan win the Serie A title this season

Fikayo Tomori has played an important role in helping AC Milan win the Serie A title this season

Fikayo Tomori has played an important role in helping AC Milan win the Serie A title this season

Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)

See Maguire, and reverse everything. There are no concerns at all with Trent Alexander-Arnold’s domestic form, given he has starred at right-back as part of a Liverpool team who just missed out on landing the quadruple this season – following last day heartbreak in the Premier League and the Champions League final loss.

But unlike Maguire, the 23-year-old has struggled to produce his best form at international level despite his excellent displays for Liverpool over the years.

In fact his place at Euro 2020 was under severe threat as he had fallen behind fellow right-backs Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and Recce James in the pecking order – only for him to be crowbarred into the squad by Southgate anyway before having to pull out injured.

Injuries have kept him out of the majority of games since and having only completed 90 minutes against minnows Andorra and San Marino, as well as 13 minutes against Albania, he now needs to convince Southgate he is still worthy of selection at international level.

It’s going to be a huge ask for him to find his best form after the way Liverpool’s season ended but his hopes of playing in the World Cup may rest on this month’s fixtures.

Trent Alexander-Arnold has barely played for England in the last year due largely to injuries

Trent Alexander-Arnold has barely played for England in the last year due largely to injuries

Trent Alexander-Arnold has barely played for England in the last year due largely to injuries

James Justin (Leicester City)

Another reason why Alexander-Arnold may need to step up is because he could be about to slip down to fifth in the pecking order of right-backs.

Justin is set to make his England debut during the start of the Nations League this month. 

The 24-year-old has responded superbly after a cruciate ligament injury ruled him out of the first half of the season and he featured prominently for the Foxes as they just missed out on a late run to secure European football.

While Alexander-Arnold may have the edge on the 24-year-old as a right-back, Justin’s threat comes with his added versatility as he has also features on the left side of the Foxes defence.

Versatile players are essential to any squad during a major tournament and should Justin shine in his Three Lions audition he could provide a severe threat to Alexander-Arnold’s fragile place in the England set-up.

James Justin is in line for his first England cap after impressing for Leicester City in 2022

James Justin is in line for his first England cap after impressing for Leicester City in 2022

James Justin is in line for his first England cap after impressing for Leicester City in 2022

Kalvin Phillips (Leeds United)

So what’s Phillips done wrong to put him under pressure of losing his place at the World Cup? Unfortunately for the Leeds star the answer is not too much and he is instead just a victim of many of his team-mates have more sway in keeping their places.

From this month’s squad, Mason Mount and Declan Rice are Southgate’s lieutenants and have safe spots, while Jude Bellingham has enough credit in the bank having impressed for England and Borussia Dortmund in recent times.

By default that leaves Phillips with the point to prove from the midfielders in terms of keeping their spot.

Given Leeds’ struggles in the Premier League this term after escaping relegation on the final day, it’s been difficult to shine and he now needs to go again during June to underline his importance in holding the midfield to Southgate.

Kalvin Phillips was part of a Leeds United team that saw off Premier League relegation

Kalvin Phillips was part of a Leeds United team that saw off Premier League relegation

Kalvin Phillips was part of a Leeds United team that saw off Premier League relegation 

Conor Gallagher (Crystal Palace, on loan from Chelsea)

It’s been a remarkable year for Gallagher who has gone from the Chelsea youth set-up to earning his first England caps having starred on loan at Crystal Palace. 

The central midfielder has been a star at Selhurst Park, so much so that he has been named on the six-man shortlist for the PFA Young Player of the Season – a reflection of how his colleagues have rated him on the pitch this season.

Although a more attacking figure than Phillips, he has covered before as a defensive midfielder during a previous loan spell at West Bromwich Albion.

Having since collected three caps following his November debut, Southgate appears to believe the 22-year-old will kick on next term whether he goes out on loan again or stays at Chelsea

‘In the end we have to pick and react off what we see at club level and Conor’s experiences at Charlton, Swansea, West Brom and Crystal Palace have been brilliant for him,’ Southgate said in March. ‘So if he goes somewhere else next season or stays at Chelsea, I’m sure he’ll keep developing.

‘He’s got a fabulous mindset, which is the key. He’s a player that will maximise his potential because of his mentality.

‘He looks like one of those who, whatever hurdles are in front of him, he’s going to break them down. I’d be very optimistic about how he would respond to any decision that is made.’

Conor Gallagher has enjoyed an excellent season for Crystal Palace, earning three senior caps

Conor Gallagher has enjoyed an excellent season for Crystal Palace, earning three senior caps

Conor Gallagher has enjoyed an excellent season for Crystal Palace, earning three senior caps

James Ward-Prowse (Southampton)

The wildcard in the pack. There has been a curious amount of focus of bringing ‘penalty specialists’ onto a pitch as part of a penalty shootout in recent times – with England trying and failing to adopt such a practice during the Euro 2020 final spot-kick heartbreak against Italy.

But what about a set-piece specialist? First of all, Ward-Prowse is more than just an excellent free-kick taker, having collected 10 caps since his 2017 debut.

Yet, he has not been selected in a finals squad for a major tournament. 

Despite Southampton’s poor end to the season – winning just one of their final 13 games, the 27-year-old still enjoyed his best campaign yet, firing in 10 goals.

Only Lionel Messi has scored more than his 13 direct free-kicks across Europe’s top five leagues in the last five years and in games where England might need a set-piece specialist with a bit of talent too, the Nations League could provide the platform for Ward-Prowse to audition for a World Cup spot. 

James Ward-Prowse will be hoping he can finally break through into a tournament squad

James Ward-Prowse will be hoping he can finally break through into a tournament squad

James Ward-Prowse will be hoping he can finally break through into a tournament squad

Tammy Abraham (Roma)

After a strong 2022, Harry Kane’s place as England’s main striker as well as team captain looks as safe as it has ever been – especially with Wayne Rooney’s record of 53 goals just four strikes away.

So who will be his deputy as a reserve central striker? The battle is fierce and has alternated between a select group of players for a few years and right now appears to have Tammy Abraham in pole position.

After being frozen out of Chelsea contention, he had lost his place in the England squad for Euro 2020 – where Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin acted second in-line to Kane.

But the 24-year-old has since revived his career with a move to Italy and under Jose Mourinho has endured an excellent campaign, winning the inaugural Europa Conference League having scored a respectable 27 goals in 53 games for the club.

The Nations League will now provide the perfect platform for Abraham to shine on the international stage and stake a strong claim to feature at the World Cup this winter. 

Tammy Abraham has revived his career at Roma after leaving Chelsea last summer

Tammy Abraham has revived his career at Roma after leaving Chelsea last summer

Tammy Abraham has revived his career at Roma after leaving Chelsea last summer

Jarrod Bowen (West Ham United)

Abraham doesn’t have a clean run to become Kane’s deputy though and he faces strong competition from one of England’s new faces.

This time last year, Bowen wasn’t even on the radar of strikers England were considering for the European Championship – but much can change over the course of a season.

Only Kane, Jamie Vardy (who has retired from international football) and Raheem Sterling – who has one of the safer seats in the England squad – scored more than Bowen’s 12 Premier League goals among English players.

But the forward also ended the campaign with an impressive 10 assists, a tally only bettered by Liverpool duo Mohamed Salah and Alexander-Arnold.

So his England call-up is merited, and he will be highly motivated to produce his best at the Nations League, especially with a realistic shot at making the World Cup squad.

Opportunity knocks for the 25-year-old ahead of his England debut. 

Jarrod Bowen's creative season in West Ham United's attack has earned him a call-up

Jarrod Bowen's creative season in West Ham United's attack has earned him a call-up

Jarrod Bowen’s creative season in West Ham United’s attack has earned him a call-up

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