Gareth Southgate has defended his decision not to travel sooner to Nizhny Novgorod to help his players acclimatise to the sweltering conditions, with England braced to take the field against Panama in temperatures well in excess of 30C.
The Central Americans, used to the heat and humidity of their home country, had travelled to the city 260 miles east of Moscow on Friday as they sought to adjust to new surroundings. Their players, some wearing long sleeves, trained in the stadium at around 3pm – the kick-off time for the Group G fixture between the teams on Sunday – on Saturday, with England, who have tended not to train in the arena on the eve of competitive games, likely to find the conditions far more challenging.
It is understood the matter was flagged up within the Football Association, with figures in the set-up suggesting it might make sense to prepare somewhere hotter than Repino, the small seaside resort on the Gulf of Finland where England have made their base. But the management, confident in their plans, are sticking by them.
“We never trained at the stadium before any of our World Cup qualifiers,” Southgate said. “It’s fairly typical for most of the teams when they play in the Champions League. When I came to the Fifa workshop they were quite keen for teams not to train at the stadia to protect the pitches.
“It makes sense to train earlier in the day, recover and then travel. It’s about the flow of the day to leave maximum time for physical recovery. We kick off at 3pm tomorrow, so there’s time ahead of the game. The heat is different in different parts of the country. We have to adapt to that.
“There’s no physiological benefit to training in the heat the couple of weeks before, and then assuming there’d be an adaptation. So we are comfortable [with the itinerary]. We are a team who keep possession and, in the heat, that will be key when we need to attack with the ball or rest with possession.”
Southgate’s players trained in conditions closer to 20C at Spartak Zelenogorsk’s stadium before departing for Nizhny Novgorod where the glass-panelled roof on the new stadium, at the confluence of the Volga and Oka rivers, may see temperatures soar into the high 30s at pitch-side. “We’ll have to do the basics really,” said Jordan Henderson, who will again anchor midfield. “Hydration is the most important thing, so plenty of fluids before, during and after the game.”
England will secure qualification for the knockout phase if they beat Panama, who are competing in their first tournament and are ranked 55 in the world. Ruben Loftus-Cheek is expected to replace the injured Dele Alli in midfield, and Marcus Rashford is also pushing for a first World Cup start, though there remains the possibility Raheem Sterling could be picked as well in a particularly eye-catching selection.
Danny Rose is pushing for inclusion at left wing-back and Southgate moved to defuse the furore over the disclosure of Steve Holland’s training notes, which had been caught on camera in Zelenogorsk on Thursday.
“My view is I totally understand the media have a role to report the news,” said the manager, who worked as a pundit for ITV before taking up a role with the FA. “My only point is if the opposition have your team in any sport, that’s a competitive advantage [for your opponent], but it’s not the job of the media to protect that; I accept that completely. I don’t expect the media to be supporters of us in terms of the way they work. They’re here to work. I know they want us to do well. That’s been clear through the tournament.
“I’m really relaxed. Last week the team came out three days before the game and I said nothing about it. I understand it’s something we can’t control and it’s part of being in a tournament and being a big team. There’s no drama about it: the picture the other day wasn’t even the team, so even less of a drama.
“On the front sheet at training are always the runners and riders, those that are injured and what the practices will be. Behind that are all the changes we’ll make in the session. I’m totally relaxed.”