In Focus: Brilliant Bellingham set for World Cup audition
England’s Nations League fixtures against Italy and Germany could finally be Jude Bellingham’s chance to shine ahead of the World Cup in Qatar.
While the 19-year-old continues to dazzle for Borussia Dortmund, most of his competitors for a place in the Three Lions midfield are struggling for fitness and form.
Ahead of the trip to the San Siro on Friday, we turn the spotlight on the teenage sensation.
The Rice partner
Declan Rice is one of the first names on the team sheet for England manager Gareth Southgate — but who partners him in central midfield remains up for debate.
The Three Lions boss rarely picks too many central midfielders in his squads, with Kalvin Phillips and James Ward-Prowse joining Bellingham and Rice in the original roster named.
Phillips excelled alongside the West Ham captain at Euro 2020, with his influential performances during their run to the final seeing him named England's 2020-21 Player of the Season.
With that in mind, it would ordinarily be his shirt to lose but the 26-year-old has barely kicked a ball since his £45million move to Manchester City this summer.
And the ex-Leeds star's hopes of featuring in Qatar suffered a further blow when he was forced to withdraw from the current squad due to a shoulder problem.
That saw Jordan Henderson drafted in as a replacement but with the Liverpool captain struggling with injuries of his own, neither seem like reliable options right now.
The chance is there over the next two games for either Bellingham or Ward-Prowse to make the shirt theirs.
And on current form, it looks as though the Dortmund starlet is best-placed to do that.
It has always felt a case of when, rather than if, Bellingham would become a mainstay in England's midfield.
Possessing physical and mental ability way beyond his tender years, the Birmingham-born teen is as proficient at making an impact in the final third as he is defending his goal.
A sublime performance against Manchester City last week, with the whole world watching, was the latest proof of that.
The No22 led an organised visiting side in frustrating Pep Guardiola's superstars before heading his team in front in the second half.
While they eventually lost 2-1 at the Etihad, former England international Micah Richards was left stunned by yet another mesmerising display.
He said: "I still have to do a double-take when I look at his age. He is 19 and running midfields in games of the highest standard.
"When I was 19 in the England squad, I was trying to find my feet and not look like a startled rabbit but this kid is just unbelievable.
"It wasn't just his goal — the way he arrived to instinctively head in — against City that made him stand out.
"It was the manner in which he was shouting at people, ordering them about and demanding the best from them, with his intelligence and fearlessness."
Bellingham was used only three times from the bench by Southgate at Euro 2020 but just over a year on, the step up to a World Cup looks one he will manage with ease.
The trusted Rice-Phillips duo was the solid foundation for England's success at Euro 2020.
However, Bellingham has shown on countless occasions that he has the discipline to come in and do a similar, if not better, job,
Phillips was deployed as a box-to-box midfielder during last summer’s tournament, where he could be found joining attacks as well as defending.
That is a role that seems to perfectly suit Bellingham’s dynamic ball-carrying and passing qualities.
His versatility in performing multiple functions from the centre of the park is why Rio Ferdinand thinks he could be the ideal option for Southgate this winter.
The former Three Lions captain said: "It’s more interesting to work out what type of player he is and what type of player you’d get in an England shirt, where I’m sure he’ll play.
"He’s combative, both sides of the game, aggressive. He’s a Swiss Army knife, he does everything. Great player."
While relegation is on the line for winless England in the Nations League, the significance of the two games this international break extend far beyond that.
The World Cup is taking place in the middle of the domestic season for the first time, meaning there are no warm-up fixtures before the Three Lions’ tournament opener against Iran on November 21.
Friday’s trip to the San Siro and the Germany clash at Wembley on Monday are therefore the final games Southgate has to judge his side — and the players’ last opportunity to stake a claim for a starting spot.
With high-calibre opponents lying in wait, both fixtures are a prime example of what England must overcome if they are to make a deep run into the tournament in the Middle East.
Come through those tests with flying colours and Bellingham may just find himself in Southgate’s XI against Iran.