Pristina, Kosovo: Gareth Southgate is set to bring Raheem Sterling back from his brief England exile in Sunday's Euro 2020 qualifier against Kosovo as he seeks to end the controversy over the Manchester City star's row with Joe Gomez.
Sterling was dropped for Thursday's 7-0 rout of Montenegro after clashing with England team-mate Gomez in the Three Lions' training base canteen.
It is believed Sterling was unhappy with Gomez following an altercation with the Liverpool defender during City's Premier League defeat at Anfield last weekend.
Although Sterling was left out of the Montenegro game as punishment for his attack on Gomez, Southgate has confirmed the winger will return for England's final Group A fixture.
Sterling and Gomez, left with a scratch under his eye after the incident, are said to have patched up their relationship, but the centre-back was jeered by England fans at Wembley when he came on as a substitute against Montenegro.
Both Southgate and Sterling expressed their support for Gomez and criticised the booing supporters, with the England manager reportedly comforting the shocked 22-year-old and his family after the match.
Now Southgate could include Gomez against Kosovo in a show of support for the Liverpool player.
With England already guaranteed to qualify for Euro 2020 in first place in their group, Southgate already planned to make changes, although he is keen to ensure England finish with a win as they eye a top-six seeding in next year's tournament.
"We will make some changes, for sure, but the seeding in the group could be critical and we know it's a big night for the Kosovans," Southgate said.
"It's a shame for them that they're now out of this part of the qualification, although they've still got the play-offs in which I think they'll be a huge threat in that format.
"So, it will be a good test for us because it will still be a lively environment.
"The enthusiasm for the game is high and we want to finish the group with as many points as we can."
'Got to be better'
Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson could return following a one-match ban, while Southgate has to decide whether to keep faith with Ben Chilwell ahead of Danny Rose at left-back.
Harry Kane may have scored a hat-trick against Montenegro but it was Leicester's Chilwell who was named England's man of the match following a fine display in which he provided three assists in the opening 24 minutes.
"Ben, I liked the hunger in his game, the enthusiasm to get forward," Southgate said.
"The whole team pressed well but he also pressed well from that full-back position, got into overlaps, his quality of delivery was excellent."
Although England have cruised through their qualifying group, Southgate believes the 2018 World Cup semi-finalists still have room for improvement as they chase a first major title since 1966.
"There were a couple of chances we conceded that just shouldn't happen, so that's still part of our game that we've got to improve upon," he said.
"If we are to be a team that are going to challenge seriously, although we're young, we've got to manage games well.
"We've got to make sure that, although we're such a fantastic attacking threat, the rest of the team is right as well. There are things we've got to be better at."
Kosovars delighted to face English 'allies'
Kosovo still hopes to reach a first European finals at Euro 2020 but has laid on the warmest of welcomes for England, their opponents on the pitch on Sunday but hailed as an ally over its role in the 1990s independence war.
After a 2-1 defeat against Czech Republic on Thursday, the newcomer on the European football scene can no longer qualify for the tournament through the group stage.
However, Kosovo will be in the play-offs next March having progressed through the Nations League, so the dream of reaching its first major tournament finals is still alive.
With England already qualified after thrashing Montenegro 7-0 on Thursday, Sunday's match has little significance but nevertheless authorities and fans in the former Serbian province are gearing up to welcome their visitors.
Banners throughout the capital Pristina proclaim "Welcome and Respect" for England in a territory where a number of young people are named after Tony Blair in a tribute to the former British prime minister.
"Thanks to you we now play against you! Forever grateful to you our beloved England!" read another banner in Pristina.
Blair and US president Bill Clinton were the leading advocates of the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in response to its late president Slobodan Milosevic's conflict with pro-independence ethnic Albanians.
A decade after the 1998-1999 conflict Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia, a move recognised by more than 100 countries, including the United States, Britain and most European Union member states.
"The most important is to receive them and to respect them as they are our friend. We are lucky for having such a friend," 29-year old economist Labinot Ajvazi said. "Let the best team win."
— B/R Football (@brfootball) November 15, 2019
Some 15,000 tickets were sold out in hours on Tuesday.
A giant screen has been erected on the main Zahir Pajaziti square in Pristina for all those unable to be at the Fadil Vokrri stadium to enjoy the game.
The Dardanians, as Kosovo fans call themselves, have promised a "magnificent reception" for England's players and supporters, said one fan, actor Fatmir Spahiu.
The breakaway territory of some two million people, 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians, only became a member of FIFA and UEFA in 2016, despite fierce opposition from Serbia.
Kosovo has impressed lately as the team coached by Switzerland's Bernard Challandes managed 15 games without defeat before falling 5-3 to England last September – until losing to the Czechs that was its only defeat in all of 2018 and 2019.
Kosovo will be handicapped on Sunday as Vedat Muriqi, who plays for Turkish club Fenerbahce, is absent due to injury as he was against the Czechs.
"There is no player who can replace him," the coach admitted.
"England coming to play in Kosovo is something big, historic," said Atdhe Nuhiu, who scored for Kosovo in Plzen. The match has special significance for the striker because he plays for English Championship club Sheffield Wednesday.
"We will celebrate in Pristina that Kosovo, with its history and as small as it is, is standing and will be playing England."
"Our country has received much support from England in many aspects," supporter Vjosa Berisha said.
"England's role as a country in liberating the people of Kosovo from Serbia's repressive regime in 1999 has been instrumental," the president of Kosovo's football association Agim Ademi said.
He ruled out the possibility that England players would face racist abuse from spectators. Their qualifier in Bulgaria in October was twice halted because of racist comments.
"Players from both teams at the end will leave the field supported by spectators, whatever the outcome."
Echoing his words, a clothing store in the centre of Pristina put a giant banner with a picture of Raheem Sterling, the Manchester City star, with an inscription reading "Miresevjen broo (Welcome bro)."
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Updated Date: Nov 16, 2019 09:10:27 IST