Gareth Southgate is ready to give Joe Hart a vote of confidence by including him in England’s World Cup qualifier in Malta and resisting the temptation to call up Jack Butland.
Hart’s position has been in doubt after West Ham’s poor start to the season and his perceived shortcomings when England drew 2-2 against Scotland at Hampden Park in June.
International football: 10 things to look out for in World Cup 2018 qualifying Read more Southgate believes the former Manchester City goalkeeper was partly culpable for both of Leigh Griffiths free-kicks but has decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and Hart has been told that he will start at the National Stadium in Ta’ Qali on Friday.
The decision represents a setback for Butland at a time when the Stoke City goalkeeper, fit again after 13 months out with a fractured ankle, was being tipped to take over as England’s No1.
Hart is in line to win his 72th cap and will hope to keep his place when the national team play Slovakia at Wembley on Monday. England will qualify for the World Cup if they win both games and Slovakia fail to beat Slovenia on Friday.
The right-back Kieran Trippier has withdrawn from the squad because of injury and returned to Tottenham.
Malta are still looking for their first points of this qualification group after six previous defeats. They are already eliminated from qualification as a consequence, and have only managed to score twice so far.
England have drawn two of their away qualifiers in this group as they were held by both Slovenia and Scotland.
Leigh Griffiths is the only player to have scored against England in this qualifying group.
Malta and England have met four times previously and England have a 100% record, scoring nine goals and conceding just one in the process.
England’s record victory over Malta was back in 1971 when they won 5-0 at Wembley in a Euro 1972 qualifier.
England have not lost a qualification match for a major tournament since the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, when they were defeated by Ukraine in October 2009 – an unbeaten streak of 35 games.
Malta have not won a major qualifier since June 2013, when they won away at Armenia in a 2014 World Cup qualifier. Michael Mifsud’s solitary goal was enough to give the Maltese national team a rare victory.
England have scored 10 goals in qualification so far – an average of 1.6 goals per game.
Gareth Southgate’s managerial record for England is as follows:
Played 8, Won 3, Drawn 3, Lost 2 – a win ratio of 37.5%.
This means that Southgate actually has the lowest win ratio of all England managers who have won at least one game while in charge. Should Southgate lead England to victory over Malta, he will leapfrog both Kevin Keegan and Joe Mercer in terms of win ratios.
Only three men have failed to win while in charge of England: Howard Wilkinson, Peter Taylor and Stuart Pearce.
This will be England’s first game since Wayne Rooney officially retired from international football.
Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge are England’s top scorers in 2018 World Cup qualification, with two goals apiece.
Eric Dier misses this game through suspension after picking up yellow cards against both Slovenia and Scotland. The only other player to have missed a 2018 World Cup qualifier because of suspension is Chelsea’s Gary Cahill, who had to sit out the home victory over Lithuania in March.
In comparison, Malta have had four red cards shown in just six matches.
Malta's Alfred Effiong misses this game through suspension due to yellow cards against Scotland in September 2016 and Slovenia in June of this year.
Malta’s Jonathan Carauna has the unwanted accolade of being sent off twice in qualification – a straight red against Scotland in September 2016 and the same again against Lithuania just a month later.
England scored three late goals to overcome Malta's stubborn resistance and stay in control of their qualifying group for next summer's World Cup. Gareth Southgate's side struggled to break down physical, resilient opponents and it was 53 minutes before Harry Kane broke the deadlock with a calm close-range finish from Dele Alli's pass.
As Malta tired, England exerted their authority and Ryan Bertrand sealed the win with a long-range shot that slipped past Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg with five minutes left.
England - who are now two points ahead of Slovakia as they prepare to meet at Wembley on Monday - began to carve Malta open with ease and added two more in injury time, substitute Danny Welbeck steering in Kane's pass before the striker added his second with virtually the final kick of the game from Marcus Rashford's delivery. England's performance must be placed in the context of opponents who are physical, resilient, organised - and ultimately the scoreline had a convincing appearance.
This was still, however, a largely colourless display until Malta, one of the minnows of the game with a world ranking of 190 and with a record of six defeats from six Group F games, tired and conceded those three late goals.
It does not make for the easiest task but this was, in large part, a conservative and uninspired England display, lacking spark and relying on Spurs pair Alli and Kane to finally make the breakthrough.
England opened brightly, with early wasted chances for Raheem Sterling and a Kane header that was well saved by Hogg, but then became bogged down in mediocrity, a state they only escaped in the final 10 minutes.
And even England's set-up had an over-conservative appearance. Was there really any need for Liverpool's Jordan Henderson and West Bromwich Albion's Jake Livermore providing the midfield base against a Malta side whose main, perhaps only, ambition was damage limitation?
This was a win that keeps England on course for the World Cup in Russia, with hopes of taking another important step against Slovakia.
Southgate's side, however, have provided little compelling evidence in this group that they will make a serious impact at the sharp end of the finals, should they qualify.
There is still time for England to develop, but this has been a campaign short on thrills and one not designed to send fear through the first tier of European clubs.
Kane may have handed the captaincy over to Henderson in Malta - but he was once more the man who took responsibility to ease England's anxiety.
After rescuing a point with an injury-time equaliser against Scotland at Hampden Park in June, Kane was the beneficiary of good work from Spurs team-mate Alli before sliding in a calm finish for his fourth goal in his past three internationals, his 10th in 20 appearances, adding a second late on.
Kane may have had what is now becoming his trademark goalless August but he is usually red-hot come September and he was not just involved as a scorer, he provided an enticing delivery for Welbeck to add the third in the final seconds, finding time to add one more himself.
England speed merchants offer optimism
Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain showed no hangover from having to complete the formalities of a £35m move to Liverpool before leaving with England's squad for Malta, delivering an impressive performance before being substituted with 14 minutes left.
He was one of the few England players who showed pace and a direct approach in a grim first 45 minutes, in sharp contrast to the struggles of Sterling.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was operating from a wide-right position which he does not expect to fulfil at Liverpool, where he hopes to be a central midfielder, but looked at home and had the beating of the Maltese defence.
And in Rashford, with his lightning pace, England have a shaft of light as Southgate searches for a game-changer going into the World Cup.
It was not sparkling but it was job done - and Oxlade-Chamberlain and Rashford were two of the brighter lights.