England will be aiming to go one better than last year and win their first major international tournament in 56 years at the World Cup in Qatar.
Gareth Southgate’s side will play the United States, Iran and the winner of Sunday’s play-off between Wales and Ukraine in the group stages.
This month’s Nations League fixtures against Hungary, Germany and Italy provide Southgate with a valuable opportunity to assess his options ahead of the tournament, which begins in November.
It is yet to be confirmed whether squad sizes will be expanded to 26 players, up from the usual 23, but in line with last summer’s European Championship.
Here, The Independent takes a look at who could be included in Southgate’s final selection…
On the plane
The England captain and soon to be his country’s all-time leading international goalscorer too. Kane is four goals behind the current record of 53 and will hope to have surpassed Wayne Rooney by the time the World Cup comes around.
Far from a regular in Manchester City’s starting line-up but, along with Kane, Sterling is one of the cornerstones of Southgate’s England. It is hard to see him missing out, even if he only continues to start now and then at club level.
Rice is one of the best young midfielders in Europe and a mainstay of this England side. Excellent as a substitute in the friendly win over Switzerland in March, though questions remain over whether he can play as a lone holding midfielder.
Questions over whether Pickford would retain his place in the event of Everton’s potential relegation ignored two points: he was still one of their best players this past season and he has never let England down. Southgate’s No 1 for the foreseeable future.
The competition for the third spot in Southgate’s forward line is fierce but Mount perhaps just has the edge over others, playing the most minutes during qualifying. Failed to have the impact many expected at Euro 2020, though.
Despite a desperately poor year, Maguire is still rated as Manchester United’s best centre-half by Southgate and there is little prospect of him being dropped at international level either. Booed by sections of the Wembley crowd last time out against Ivory Coast.
Like Mount, capable of playing in the forward line, but spent much of qualifying in a midfield role. Foden is probably the most naturally gifted player in this squad and is destined to be a key figure in the years to come but nailing down a position is necessary.
Started more World Cup qualifiers than even Kane and Sterling, and was not far off his total of league starts at City this season. Stones continues to be in and out at club level but Southgate rates his and Maguire’s partnership as England’s best.
Left out of the March squad as Southgate wished to look at other right-back options, Walker returns and remains the best suited to England’s style. His recovery pace is a cheat code against opposition counter-attacks and he is comfortable playing in a back three as well.
If his place in the starting line-up is neither nailed nor defined, Saka’s versatility is valued highly and he has often been the player Southgate turns to in order to change a game. Second only to Grealish in the popularity stakes among the Wembley crowd.
From making his international debut to becoming a firm first-choice last season, injury hampered the Leeds midfielder’s progression this term. Missed out on the March camp while returning from hamstring surgery but now has the opportunity to win his spot back.
Left out of this squad in order to recuperate from a long season with Liverpool. Southgate knows all there is to know about Henderson already and will likely reinstate him for the September camp, though he faces stiff competition for a starting spot.
Despite persistent questions over whether he is returning on his £100m fee, Grealish seems to have convinced Southgate. City’s record signing has been part of every squad since last summer, even though he has been another victim of Pep Guardiola’s rotation policy.
A man-of-the-match display against Ivory Coast last time out felt like an important moment for a player who will only turn 19 next month. Bellingham is the future of England’s midfield but may be its present too if he keeps impressing.
Arguably the most well-rounded of all England’s right-back options but his international career is still waiting for lift-off. Southgate called James up in March with the express intention of seeing more of him, only for him to have to withdraw through injury.
Arguably should be England’s second-choice goalkeeper now, following a good first season with Arsenal and Pope’s relegation with Burnley, but Ramsdale still has a lot of work to do before he can be confident of dislodging Pickford as first choice.
Dropping down a division is not necessarily fatal for a back-up England goalkeeper. Pope has demonstrated over the past few years that he is top-flight quality and is an established member of Southgate’s squad.
Missed the end of United’s season after undergoing surgery to remove two metal bolts in the leg he broke seven years ago and sits out of these Nations League games as a result. Southgate’s first-choice left-back when fit and in form, nevertheless.
Named England’s “player of the tournament” at the Euros by assistant Steve Holland despite not playing a minute. Coady’s four qualifying starts came against the minnows San Marino and Andorra but his importance to the dressing room should not be underestimated.
Withdrew from the last squad through injury and will leave this camp early after his exertions with Liverpool. Alexander-Arnold might be this squad’s finest playmaker on his day but whether his brand of full-back play fits Southgate’s system has always been the question.
One of the squad’s senior figures, which may help him fight off competition at right-back. Trippier’s set-piece ability is another bonus and he has captained the side on occasions when Kane and Henderson have been absent.
Withdrew from this camp through injury. Far from ideal for White, given that the centre-back slots behind Maguire and Stones are up for grabs and he faces competition from other young defenders who will be hoping to take their chance.
More than just free-kicks and corners, though his ability in dead-ball situations is certainly his unique selling point. Ward-Prowse was Southgate’s captain during their under-21s days together but that was not enough to save him in the final cut before last year’s Euros.
While his rivals to provide cover for Kane in Qatar regressed, Abraham enjoyed a strong debut season in Rome, scoring 27 goals in 53 games under the guidance of Jose Mourinho. A more rounded skill set might give him the edge over Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
Like Abraham, taking the plunge and moving to Serie A has paid off hugely. Now with a Scudetto to his name, Tomori is a prime candidate to take advantage of the lack of convincing depth behind Maguire and Stones.
Southgate is a huge fan of the Crystal Palace centre-half, who has been one of the most impressive young players in the top flight this term and did not look out of place on debut in the spring.
Impressive on his debut against Switzerland, even though his goals and assists dried up slightly during the second half of the season with Palace. What happens this summer – and whether he can break in at Chelsea – will have a big say on chances for Qatar.
Work to do
Arrived at Old Trafford last summer with much expected of him and so far, it has not worked out as planned. Sancho’s struggles cannot be separated from United’s much wider problems and a fresh start under Erik ten Hag could be just what he requires.
Rashford’s last kick in an England shirt was his missed penalty in the Euro 2020 final shoot-out. The United forward still has plenty of credit in the bank with Southgate but a substantial turnaround in form is required to force his way back in for Qatar.
Outstanding for West Ham this season but has had to be patient for international recognition due to the depth of forward options that Southgate has to choose from. The four Nations League games will be his chance to stake a regular squad place.
A regular in Southgate’s squads since 2019, Mings was suddenly omitted this time around. The Aston Villa captain’s left-footedness is considered an asset but a group of younger, more inexperienced centre-halves will be tested out this time.
Chilwell’s season was ended in November by a cruciate ligament injury, his recovery only leaving time for a two-minute cameo on the final day of the season. If he can come back fit and ready and avoid injury, he will be halfway to Qatar.
Another whose season was badly disrupted by injury, Calvert-Lewin eventually returned and played enough on a consistent basis to help Everton stave off the drop. Appears to be behind Abraham in the queue now, though a fast start to next season could change things.
Emile Smith Rowe
Included in the squad for the March internationals despite dropping to the bench at Arsenal but now looks unlikely to make his way back into Southgate’s plan unless he can regain his place at club level. Must prove that impressive start to the season was not just a hot streak.
Watkins’s opportunities with England have only come in dribs and drabs and, though two goals in 137 minutes of football is a decent record, the Villa forward needs to match the output of his rivals to stake a serious claim for World Cup inclusion.
Expected to join Crystal Palace this summer and, provided he is first-choice there, a return to the Premier League will only help his chances of being one of the three goalkeepers Southgate is required to select.
Maddison could not have done much more to earn an international call-up after a strong end to the season. His 18 goals and 12 assists in all competitions marked a career-best but still not enough to dislodge his direct rivals Foden, Mount and Grealish.
Southgate conceded he had been harsh to leave Dier out of this squad after a strong end to the season with Tottenham, though cited him playing in the middle of a back three as one of the reasons why he had looked elsewhere.
The most surprising name in the Nations League squad but deserving of a place. Justin’s ability to play on either the left or right side of defence is a plus but does not have long to push his way ahead of other more established full-backs.
Failed to open his account at international level after being called up last September, then spent much of the season on the sidelines at Leeds due to injury. Unless he suddenly finds form at the start of next season, it is hard to see him regaining his spot in time.
Unlucky to miss out on a recall after making his debut during the March internationals and not looking out of place. The uncertainty over Shaw and Chilwell’s fitness stands in his favour but both are ahead of him in the queue when available.
Lingard’s departure from United after more than a decade on the books should herald a fresh start. At 29 years of age, he will want to avoid another wasted season like the last. Another spurt of form to match his on-loan exploits at West Ham is his best hope of a recall.
Debuted against Switzerland and, like the other first-timers in March, did not look out of place but the depth at full-back makes a late run into the final squad difficult. Versatility to play on the left and the right is useful, at least.
Another youngster that Southgate and his staff have watched closely and are impressed with but this winter World Cup is likely to come too soon for the Villa academy graduate, who is more likely to feature at under-21 level.
Henderson cannot afford to spend another stagnant season as second-choice, after only making three appearances for United this term. A talented goalkeeper who simply has not played enough over the past two years.
The Independent’s predicted 26-man World Cup squad
Goalkeepers: Jordan Pickford, Nick Pope, Aaron Ramsdale
Defenders: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ben Chilwell, Conor Coady, Marc Guehi, Reece James, Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, John Stones, Fikayo Tomori, Kyle Walker
Midfielders: Jude Bellingham, Conor Gallagher, Jordan Henderson, Mason Mount, Kalvin Phillips, Declan Rice
Forwards: Tammy Abraham, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling