Tom Oldfield

The World Cup draw in Cape Town was another timely reminder that the tournament is creeping ever closer. And that means now or never time for those players on the fringes who are hoping to earn a seat on the plane is approaching.

England boss Fabio Capello is one of many international managers who still have decisions to make. A favourable draw paired John Terry and company with the USA, Algeria and Slovenia but the make-up of the squad is not yet set in stone.

Choosing which midfielders to take to South Africa will not be easy. England are blessed in this area and, though the starting quartet are now relatively predictable, there is an almighty scrap on the horizon for the backup roles.

Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry seem to have clinched the central midfield berths. Lampard continues to produce consistent performances for Chelsea where he is one of Carlo Ancelotti’s most important players. His ability to time his runs forward in support of the attack will be vital in South Africa, relieving the pressure on Wayne Rooney. Barry has quietly gone about his business since moving to Manchester City and his calm, measured passing has clearly impressed Capello.
The on-going saga surrounding the notion that Lampard and Steven Gerrard cannot play together centrally has prompted Capello to use Gerrard on the left, from where he is free to roam infield and give Ashley Cole more space to push forward. While the Liverpool man is more influential in a central role, he has shown he can link up with Rooney from wide positions and he presents problems for full-backs who can be caught in two minds as to whether to track his movement.

The trio of Lampard, Barry and Gerrard have all done enough to secure starting roles when England play their first group game on 12th June against the USA – but there are other questions that need answering.
The most pressing conundrum is who the first choice on the right wing will be. Capello has a number of options and the players’ fitness will certainly be a factor. When England hammered Croatia 4-1 early in qualifying, Theo Walcott bagged a hat-trick and was proclaimed as the answer on the right flank for the World Cup. But since then the Arsenal man has struggled with form and injury, allowing Tottenham’s Aaron Lennon to leapfrog him in the pecking order. As things stand, Lennon looks to be the man in possession.
If Walcott can prove his fitness, he ought to make the trip and it would be a huge surprise if David Beckham, who will be joining AC Milan for the latter part of the season, does not make the cut too. Beckham’s World Cup experience, dating back to his unforgettable red card at France ’98, will be a useful asset and it would be a fitting international swansong for the midfielder.
But that is where the more clear-cut decisions end. The popular school of thought says that Capello will look to take eight midfielders, which leaves two spots to fill. And again much will depend on fitness. The Italian only really needs one reserve for the centre of midfield as he has Gerrard and even Beckham who could tuck inside if required. Michael Carrick seems to be winning the battle for that spot but Shaun Wright-Phillips, who has played there at times for Man City, and Jermaine Jenas will still believe they can make a late push.
Carrick’s main competitor, though, could yet be his Manchester United team-mate Owen Hargreaves. Hargreaves has missed huge chunks of football over the past few years but, prior to his injury nightmare, was an England regular. His place has since gone to Barry but if the former Bayern Munich terrier can return to the form and fitness of 2006 and 2007, his name should definitely be up for consideration. After all, on song he is comfortably the country’s best defensive midfielder. His versatility in being capable of filling in at right-back and right midfield is also in his favour. However, the path back from serious injury is rarely smooth and, though the news coming from the coaching staff at Old Trafford is extremely encouraging, he is running out of time to convince Capello of his fitness.
A back up for the left flank is also a necessity. While Barry has a cultured left foot and could slide across, Capello will want another solid option and he has a trio of talented hopefuls to choose from. Joe Cole has experience on his side and, having overcome his injury problems, is finding his way again for Chelsea. Then there is the Aston Villa pair of Ashley Young and James Milner. Young has pace, tricks and an eye for goal, though occasionally the end product lets him down while Milner is making a late burst for selection with some stirring recent displays. In terms of form, Milner is leading the pack and his ability to deliver with either foot makes him difficult for defenders to shut down.
And so the midfield situation is far from solved. It looks as though it can be safely assumed that Lampard, Barry, Gerrard and Lennon will be in the squad and, fitness and form permitting, Walcott and Beckham should be the fifth and sixth midfielders on the list.
Much now depends on Hargreaves because if he can put in a solid run in the build up to the tournament, he is too influential to be left out. If not, Carrick must get the nod. The final spot is a tough call but look for Milner’s timely surge to squeeze him into the 23-man group. Midfield talent is a major strength for Capello and it could be the factor that pushes England into the latter stages in South Africa.


  Related Articles: