Fabio Capello is not one to give too much away, his demeanour surly enough for ITV’s Clive Tyldsley to describe the Italian as “old poker face” during last night’s dead-rubber win over Belarus at Wembley. But prior to the game, the England manager had given the story-writers plenty to work with by suggesting that his squad for next summer’s World Cup had “seven or eight” spots available.
It would appear that the players had heard this too. Several of the would-be support-cast were given chances to stake their claim last night. Several managed to. Peter Crouch’s brace took his international tally to an incredible 18 in 35 appearances – comparable with the likes of Michael Owen, Fernando Torres or Miroslav Klose. Shaun Wright-Phillips worked hard in an unfamiliar left-wing role and was rewarded with a goal, whilst James Milner, Gabriel Agbonlahor & Ben Foster all showed glimpses of their talents.
The Right Sided Conundrum
Meanwhile, David Beckham’s man-of-the-match award – given to him by former Manchester United colleague Steve Bruce – may have been contested by many, his impact and quality surely could not be. The LA Galaxy media circus/midfielder is certainly the odd one out when it comes to Capello’s right sided options, in that he lacks pace and direct running ability, but he is also unique in the sense that his final ball is reliable and consistent. A January move to Milan will all but guarantee his spot in the squad.
With Theo Walcott’s stock still high despite recent injuries, it means that one of either Wright-Phillips or Aaron Lennon is likely to miss out. Both are very much form players, capable of explosiveness one minute, anonymity the next. The one in form come the end of the season may well be the one Capello picks. James Milner is another option, and his versatility – he appeared last night as a left-back – may well work in his favour. A lack of genuine class and goal threat however, may count against him.
The rest – David Bentley, Ashley Young – have some serious work to do before they are even considered.
Capello’s Bete Noire, it has to be said. Gone are the days when David Seaman, Gordon Banks or Peter Shilton could simply be thrown the gloves and relied upon to do England proud. England’s current crop of keepers each have merits, but equally worrying weaknesses.
David James and Robert Green would appear to be the two certainties currently. Green’s dismissal in Dnipro last weekend count more against Rio Ferdinand than the West Ham stopper, whilst James – even at 39 – remains the country’s most reliable, experienced keeper.
The third spot is most definitely available. Foster has had a rough start to the season with Manchester United, but is well thought of in the England setup, and his performance last night will have given him confidence that he can avoid the fate of the likes of Scott Carson and Paul Robinson, both of whom saw their form plummet when in possession of the #1 jersey for their country.
Foster still faces competition: Robinson is back into a semblance of form with Blackburn, and is popular with many of the squad, whilst the likes of Joe Hart at Birmingham, and Wigan’s Chris Kirkland both have their supporters, and should be worked hard enough to play themselves into form come next summer.
At the other end of the field, there are similar issues. Capello seems settled on a Wayne Rooney/Emile Heskey partnership as his first choice, but beyond those there is a raft of hopefuls looking for a place on the plane.
Crouch may well have barged his way to the front of the queue last night with his poacher’s double, but Capello may well reserve judgement on the Tottenham man’s reliability against elite opposition. His Spurs colleague, Jermain Defoe, is a much safer bet, especially if he retains the good form with which he has begun this season.
Agbonlahor appears very much a deputy for the deputies. His raw pace and energy was welcome last night, and he showed admirable awareness to lay on the opener for Crouch, but in international terms, the Villa man sits behind Defoe in terms of consistency, reliability and goalscoring.
His replacement last night was West Ham’s Carlton Cole, a player who has improved significantly over the past two years, but also one who has the potential to play his way out of form in the blink of an eye. For all his improvement at Upton Park, Cole has just 20 league goals in 82 appearances for the Hammers.
Michael Owen, on form, outshines them all. Injuries, however, and a lack of playing time at Manchester United, have forced England’s fourth-highest goalscorer way down the pecking order. He was at Wembley last night to watch the young pretenders have their chance, no doubt hoping for one of his own before the final squad is named.
So here goes. Attempting to name the squad a full seven months before Capello has to may well be a dangerous game, but the Italian’s comments have inspired me. See if you agree.
Goalkeepers: David James, Robert Green, Ben Foster
Defenders: Glen Johnson, Wes Brown, Wayne Bridge, Ashley Cole, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Matthew Upson
Midfielders: Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry, Owen Hargreaves, Joe Cole, David Beckham, Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott
Forwards: Wayne Rooney, Peter Crouch, Emile Heskey, Jermain Defoe