England manager Roy Hodgson knows what’s at stake.
The next eight days see England face two home fixtures that will decide whether or not they shall play in next year’s World Cup finals in Brazil. First up under Wembley’s arch this Friday is the visit of Montenegro, followed by Poland four days later – two nations that have already taken a point off the Three Lions during qualification.
Given the manner in which they have struggled to overcome so-called lesser opponents at Wembley in recent times – as was the case against the Republic of Ireland and Scotland over the summer – it is far from a foregone conclusion that Roy Hodgson’s men shall be boarding the plane for Brazil come early-June.
So what of the squad that has been assembled for this crucial double-header? It can be argued that many of those that are set to gather for the first training session at St. George’s Park this morning arrive on the back of a sustained period of good form for their respective clubs, with one notable exception, of course.
While the form of Joe Hart has been much-scrutinized, from the back of tabloids and broadsheets to the nth degree on the various social media, the emergence of talented ball-carriers such as Ross Barkley and Andros Townsend, alongside the maturity in front of goal shown this season by Daniel Sturridge, means that there is huge cause for optimism going into the qualifiers. Throw into the mix Rickie Lambert’s seamless transition to the International fold and it is clear to see why many believe England should prove too strong for their opponents.
With no fewer than five squad members featuring, Manchester City’s 3-1 victory over Everton during Saturday lunchtime’s hotly-contested clash at the Etihad will have given the on-looking England manager plenty of food for thought; not least due to the performance of James Milner, who did his chances of a starting-berth against Montenegro no harm in a disciplined display that both nullified the trademark attacking runs of fellow countryman Leighton Baines and enabled the likes of Silva and Yaya Touré greater freedom going forward.
Given the absence of Theo Walcott and Ashley Young through injury and a dip in form respectively, the squad is shorn of experienced personnel who can provide natural width. As a result, it is easily Hodgson’s biggest call who to pick in this department. With a full 90 minutes under his built as ideal preparation, don’t be surprised if Hodgson calls on the dependable Milner again to answer his dilemma out wide.
What is more a formality should be the back five. Fresh from that morale-boosting victory over the Toffees and a vote of confidence from his manager, Joe Hart is set to keep the number one jersey. This is not the same Hart that has grabbed everyone’s attention ever since his stellar displays during his loan spell at Birmingham City in 2009/10. Back then, it was refreshing to see an English goalkeeper oozing the sort of confidence that resembled someone guarding the net in his back garden rather than on such a prestigious stage.
Some have argued he’s taken his eye off the ball; that his TV commercial appearance has, well, got to his head. There are several theories as to why the player hasn’t looked ‘The Great Wall’ as he was once dubbed by the Spanish press; one that is looking less plausible is the lack of stiff competition, given the heroics of Fraser Forster during Celtic’s recent 1-0 defeat to Barcelona. The level of chastisement levelled at him from all corners for failure to perform routine saves in the 3-1 defeat to FC Bayern last Wednesday cannot have helped his confidence; Hart is the sort that would appear unfazed by negative publicity, and yet he will not have needed reminding of those errors. Unfortunately, the nation loves to beat someone when they’re down, and currently Hart is receiving the ‘Torres treatment’.
In front of him, a solid understanding has developed between Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill in each of the past five international fixtures. Having a settled side is paramount going into a major tournament, and it would appear Hodgson has pinned his colours on experience over youth. What they lack in pace they make up for in being exceptional readers of the game. With Montenegro and Poland expected to provide limited attacking forays, it is important that England stay concentrated during the occasional moments they do come under pressure.
Ashley Cole’s withdrawal during Chelsea’s hard-fought 3-1 victory over Norwich on Sunday would previously have had England managers fretting in the same week as games of such magnitude; not when the form of Leighton Baines has been so superbly consistent. Hodgson knows that should Cole be unable to shrug off a rib injury, he has in Baines a more than trusted deputy, not to mention the creator of more goal-scoring opportunities than anyone else in Europe last season and a dead-ball specialist.
On the right, Glen Johnson’s absence means that Kyle Walker should add to his eight caps, but a week’s training will give Hodgson and his staff ample time to assess any signs of complacency or fatigue that were on show in Tottenham’s surprise 3-0 defeat at home to West Ham United.
Such a damaging scoreline means the international break comes at a good time for Jermaine Defoe, who will point to his impressive scoring record against continental defences as reason for his inclusion over the coming fortnight. It would appear, however, that at the age of 30, Defoe has accepted the role of an impact substitute capable of stretching tired defenders.
The form of Daniel Sturridge has been a major focal point in Liverpool’s surge to the summit of the Premier League, and given Rooney’s rediscovery of his appetite for goal, it will frustrate many of those attending the games if either are deployed out of position. Such an exciting prospect should be given freedom to blossom, and provided Hodgson is bold in his midfield selection, this should prove the perfect platform on which to form a partnership together that is just as devastating as those they enjoy at domestic level, alongside Suárez and van Persie respectively.
Which brings me back onto the midfield and the selection of James Milner. Granted, had either of Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain been fit, we would most likely have seen a far more expansive England side than the one that will line-up on Friday, but given the options at Hodgson’s disposal, it would be wrong to throw Townsend or Barkley in from the start.
Milner will be keen to show he still possesses the creative side to his game that has been disregarded since his selection against Ukraine was largely viewed as unglamorous. His unrelenting work-rate is the sort that will wear weaker opponents down, and the same can be said of Danny Welbeck, who would seem most comfortable playing in a position where he’s not the centre of attention.
In the centre of midfield, a case can be made for either of Lampard or Carrick to partner captain Steven Gerrard, especially given Jack Wilshere’s slight dip in form this season. The youngster’s fine strike for Arsenal in Sunday’s 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion – his first in the Premier League for three seasons – will have breathed fresh confidence into the 21-year-old, but as observers of the game will testify, there is a fine line between tenacity and ill-discipline, and Wilshere has shown signs of over-stepping the mark on more than one occasion since his return from a long lay-off.
Those with an England allegiance will hope Mezut Özil’s arrival at the Emirates won’t have a detrimental effect on the development of one of the nation’s biggest prospects; indeed, many will point to the signature as a positive move that will hopefully take the attention away from such a precocious talent.
The Gerrard-Lampard axis might be in the winter of its international existence, but it still provides arguably the best platform from which to dictate proceedings in the attacking third. Provided there are no mid-week withdrawals due to a flailing Phil Jones boot, England should be confident of coming through these final tests of nerve. It’s make or break time for England. Whatever you do, Roy, leave the brolly at home.