England can look forward to facing the world’s top-ranked side Belgium in the next UEFA Nations League later this year, but for now manager Gareth Southgate’s chief concerns surround the coronavirus outbreak and the fitness of forward duo Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford going into Euro 2020.
Tuesday’s draw for the next Nations League saw England — who finished third last year in the inaugural version of the competition — come out in a group with Belgium, Denmark and Iceland in League A.
Those matches will be played from September to November, with the four-team finals set for June 2021.
“We enjoyed the competition last time, and the quality of the fixtures again shows how exciting this could be,” Southgate said after Tuesday’s draw ceremony in Amsterdam.
England played Belgium twice at the 2018 World Cup, in the group stage and the third-place play-off, and lost both matches.
They are also due to host Denmark at Wembley in a friendly on March 31. However, there are currently worries that game — and the scheduled March 27 clash with Italy — might be postponed or played behind closed doors if required to contain the coronavirus outbreak which has already caused the postponement of numerous sporting events worldwide.
“We don’t need to speculate at the moment,” Southgate said. “I think we have to be adaptable and have to make sure that we are prepared for every eventuality, but as we stand we are trying not to get too worried by all the hype, make sensible decisions on hygiene and go from there.”
England cruised through qualifying for Euro 2020, in which they will play group games at Wembley and would also be at home in the semi-finals and final should they get there.
However, loss of form to certain squad members — not least the struggles of goalkeeper Jordan Pickford — and injuries to Kane and Rashford are problems.
It was feared Tottenham Hotspur striker Kane would not play again this season after having hamstring surgery in January, while Manchester United’s Rashford is out with a back injury.
“All I know is that both players have given themselves the best possible chance of being fit and available not only for us but for the end of the season for their clubs,” said Southgate.
“Obviously that is their priority, they have got to get back playing club football, then of course we are hoping both come through with no issues ahead of the summer for us.”
He added: “We have really good competition for places, but clearly we want to be going to the Euros with our best players and there is no doubt that Kane and Rashford would be in that category.”
Belgium manager Roberto Martinez was pleased with Tuesday’s draw — his team, who lead the world rankings, faced Iceland in the last Nations League and are already set to take on Denmark at the European Championships in Copenhagen.
It is the approaching Euro itself which is at the forefront of his mind, and the Spaniard is hopeful Real Madrid star Eden Hazard will be fit to play in June despite needing an operation on a potentially season-ending foot injury.
“I’m very confident. I think if the operation goes well I think Eden could finish the season with Real Madrid,” he said.
“We need to get the right treatment, we need to get a very good operation, and from that point I have no worries about Eden being back on the pitch very quickly.”
Meanwhile, with his contract expiring, Martinez admitted that he still does not know if he will be in charge of Belgium after Euro 2020 and by the time the Nations League comes around.
“It’s about the right answer, not when you give the answer,” he said. “When there is something concrete about my position we will make it clear before the Euro so there is no distraction, but it will be a good decision for Belgian football.”