Tom Oldfield

Fabio Capello’s first major task as England boss was to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Job done. But now he must consider the final stages of an equally tricky proposition – picking his squad for next summer.

England cantered through their qualifying campaign, booking their place in South Africa with their eighth straight group stage victory, winning 5-1 against Croatia. The signs are very promising, with few nations able to handle the starting line-up at Capello’s disposal, but one area that still needs to be ironed out is the strikeforce.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Wayne Rooney will be on the plane, injury permitting, and will spearhead the attack. He loves the big occasion and will be desperate to make amends for his rush of blood in Germany in 2006. However, beyond Rooney, there are questions to be answered in terms of Capello’s preferences and the recent friendly against Brazil, which England lost 1-0, did not make the situation a lot clearer.
Capello has taken a good look at Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe and Emile Heskey while the fleet-footed Gabriel Agbonlahor has also featured. Then there is Darren Bent, who already has eight goals to his name for Sunderland this season, Carlton Cole, who is developing nicely at West Ham, and Michael Owen, who continues to be ignored. Capello will probably look to cut that list down to just four, including Rooney. And that means some players face major disappointment. It goes without saying that playing in a World Cup is every youngster’s dream, but eight into four does not go.

Putting Rooney, whose awareness, technique and work ethic make him one of the first names on the teamsheet, to one side as a certainty, Defoe appears to be next in the pecking order. With his pace and clever movement, the Tottenham man works well with Rooney and is a clinical goalscorer. Defoe played well during the qualifiers, scoring regularly, and could well get the nod in the starting line-up when England play their first group game in South Africa next summer.

Then there are the three big men. Crouch and Heskey have the experience from playing in previous tournaments with England. The former has pushed his way into the Spurs attack and is back scoring goals again. He is a nuisance aerially and is surprisingly mobile and skilful on the deck. Heskey too is a talented target man as shown by the form that earned him a recall while at Wigan. However, he is currently seeing limited minutes for Aston Villa owing to the brilliance of Agbonlahor and John Carew. This may well count against him if it continues as Capello will rightly be reluctant to pick a player who is lacking match practice and would therefore be somewhat rusty.

Cole, meanwhile, is a wildcard. He has the all-round physicality to terrorise defences and he is a far better athlete than Crouch or Heskey. His finishing needs polishing but he has started the season well, despite West Ham’s sluggish start, and is leaving defenders battered and bruised. The question is: how many big men will Capello want to take? Could he take both Crouch and Cole, for instance, without harming the balance of the attack?

Agbonlahor, meanwhile, appears to be enhancing his credentials each week. Prospering from the creativity of Ashley Young and James Milner on the flanks for Villa, he is proving a constant threat but his return to form may be coming a little too late to make the squad this time. However, he could yet make a statement with big performances in the coming weeks.

With the clock ticking, Bent is also giving it his best shot. His move to Sunderland has revived his career and his running off the ball is excellent. Against him, though, is the fact that he is a similar type of striker to Defoe and as a result the argument returns to the balance of the squad. Bent was handed a chance against Brazil and, though the service was poor, he did not really do enough to alter Capello’s thinking.

And things look bleaker still for Owen. The former Liverpool striker has given glimpses of his pre-injury form since joining Manchester United but he remains injury-plagued and is not logging enough first team minutes when it counts. Capello will keep an eye on Owen but he is a huge outsider to be in the final squad and many feel his omission for the Brazil friendly was the final nail in the coffin.

Given the various arguments for and against each of the strikers chasing a spot, one thing is for sure: this is a nice problem for Capello to have. He has eight talented front men fighting to represent their country and all of them will be pushing to further their chances before the Italian makes his final decisions.

That said, Capello will have a good idea of his plans for the World Cup by now. There are plenty of options but expect to see Rooney, Defoe and Crouch taking their seats on the plane with Cole sneaking into the fourth and last spot as England chase World Cup glory next summer.

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