Gareth Southgate confirms England will not release players ahead of dead-rubber Lithuania qualifier

Gareth Southgate has successfully guided England to the 2018 World Cup finalsGetty Images

Any minor hopes top Premier League clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Liverpool may have harboured of welcoming a handful of England players back from international duty earlier than expected have been scuppered after Gareth Southgate confirmed that he would not be releasing any of his current group before the trip to Lithuania.

England's final 2018 World Cup qualifying affair in Vilnius on Sunday (8 October) has now become a total dead-rubber with the Three Lions cementing their place at next summer's tournament with one match to spare by squeezing past battling Slovenia at Wembley Stadium courtesy of a 94th-minute winner from in-form Spurs striker Harry Kane.

They would still have secured top spot in Group F even without such a late intervention from their captain after 10-man Slovakia lost to Scotland in dramatic circumstances.

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Many expected that Southgate would choose to make several personnel changes in the likely event that his side travelled to Eastern Europe without needing to achieve a result in order to make sure of their place in Russia.

And while the manager admitted that the low-stakes tie did present an opportunity for him to run the rule over a couple of different players, he insisted that the squad, injury permitting, would remain fully intact as England seek to round off a typically efficient but dreary campaign by prolonging their 37-match unbeaten run in qualifying fixtures for major tournaments.

"I won't release them, no," he told reporters in a press conference held after the win over Slovenia. "We have to assess where we are injury wise, but we won't be releasing any players. It's important that we're a squad, we stay together as a squad. Maybe [at] some point tonight we might enjoy the fact that we're at a World Cup, although that might take a few minutes.

"There will be England supporters going to Lithuania and we have a duty to put a performance on. We want to stay unbeaten, we want to go and win the game. [There are] one or two players that we definitely would like to have a look at and it's one of very few games we have now to build towards the World Cup."

The Football Association (FA) recently confirmed that England will contest two high-profile friendlies next month against heavyweight opposition in Germany and Brazil. Southgate has already formulated a plan for both of those eye-catching fixtures as he seeks to implement the improvements that he knows are necessary if his team are to prove anything other than early knockout round fodder at the World Cup.

"We pretty much know already what we want to do with those two friendlies," he added. "We don't have time to waste any match in terms of what we might learn from it and what we might take from it."

Thursday's slender defeat of Slovenia came on a somewhat bizarre and restless night in north-west London that saw a mixture of sheer apathy and a cancelled Tube strike produce thousands upon thousands of empty seats at the home of English football.

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Strange atmosphere

Many of those who did opt to attend left little doubt as to their frustration at yet another tepid display, with a number of hastily assembled paper aeroplanes tossed in the general direction of the pitch throughout the second half.

" [I'm] very aware of it, but in this job and in terms of playing for England you've got to be resilient," Southgate said in response to that uneasy atmosphere. "You have to stick to your beliefs, you have to stick together as a group."

The disappointing nature of the performance left few in the mood to celebrate England's qualification, with a half-hearted post-match lap of honour completed in front of a nearly empty stadium. However, Southgate did take time to reflect upon the importance of the achievement.

"In the end, for English football, it's crucial to be at a World Cup," he said. "Absolutely crucial for everybody. Probably quite critical for the economy as well."

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