Harry Maguire has rapidly emerged as one of the most popular and highly rated central defenders in English football.
Sheffield United fans will cite back to prophetic claims they made in the early stages of his career at Bramall Lane to prove they saw his stardom coming, even if he is something of a late bloomer. Operating at the heart of a central defensive trio, the Leicester City enforcer played with composure and maturity in his first major international tournament last summer, earning esteemed praise and reported interest from Manchester United as a result.
His popularity transcends beyond football though: the man affectionately nicknamed ‘slab head’ became a national hero when he was pictured chatting casually to a bashful-looking woman after scoring in England’s 2-0 quarter-final victory over Sweden. The woman’s adoring expression and nervous body language combined with Maguire’s ultra relaxed stance suggested this was her first encounter with a newly-crowned king to whom she was betrothed. It later became apparent that the elusive woman in question, namely Fern Hawkins, was in fact his girlfriend, and that only seemed to add comedic value to the post.
The euphoria and mania of the World Cup has not corrupted Maguire’s development thereafter. His glowing reputation both personally and professionally remains in tact and his performances at Leicester this season will almost certainly earn him a start against the Czech Republic – particularly given the fact Gareth Southgate’s list of injured absentees could almost form a title-challenging all-star Premier League XI.
John Stones and Joe Gomez are both sidelined with injury and the shortage of first-choice options in central defence will add an extra weight of responsibility onto those strapping broad shoulders which wouldn’t look out of place on a rugby pitch. He will be the most senior central defender by default – in terms of England experience – and he will need to use his defensive nous to nullify the Czech’s most dangerous threat: Patrik Schick.
The travelling side have a prestigious footballing history which evokes nostalgic memories of pulsating attacking players, from Jan Koller, who embodied a bull in a china shop approach to bustling centre-forward play, to Pavel Nedved, who dazzled and orchestrated with an elegance akin to his majestic blond locks.
But that generation has passed and left the Eastern European nation with a squad of underwhelming individuals. Schick, however, offers a flicker of flair and promise to suggest that the next batch of talent could grind their sobering regression to a halt.
A centre-forward by trade, Schick joined AS Roma from Fiorentina in the summer of 2017 after scoring 11 goals and providing five assists in 32 Serie A appearances during the 2016/17 season. The switch from a solid mid-table outfit to a budding title-contender and regular Champions League participant has not been the seamless transition to success which he may have hoped for, but he has thrived on the international stage of late.
The 6 ft 2 target man has started 12 times in Serie A this season, scoring three goals in the process, but he boasts a far more prolific return for his national side. Three goals arrived in four UEFA Nations League appearances in 2018, while his all-round hold up play and twinkle-toed dribbling ability offered a level of star quality which is unrivalled in Jaroslav Silhavy’s squad.
If anyone is likely to provide the inspiration for a shock Czech Republic victory at Wembley, it’s Schick. Maguire’s fundamental task will be to win the physical and mental battle with the outstanding individual opponent, using every inch of his mass to bully the gangly forward both on and off the ball, reducing him to nothing more than a flashy Bambi on ice.
The Czechs are dark horses and Schick is the jockey with the power to guide them to a stunning victory over England; equally, Maguire is sufficiently-equipped to ensure that the danger man is suppressed.