Liam Barnes

Thanks to Fabio Capello’s impressive rejuvenation of the England team he inherited from Steve McLaren roughly two years ago, England have a luxurious opportunity to experiment with different options and fine-tune their squad before June 2010, a squad that is in the main settled and structured, with only a handful of seats to South Africa still up for grabs.

Of course, over the season there will be injuries, hot streaks and losses of form attempting to change the look of England’s starting XI, but what the team Capello would want in ideal circumstances is clear: David James in goal, behind a solid defence of Ashley Cole, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and (probably) Glen Johnson, with Gareth Barry sitting back to allow Lampard to rove and Gerrard to come in from the left, with Theo Walcott down the right, Emile Heskey up top and Wayne Rooney, the key player, in the fantasista role just off the striker.

Most of the squad is also fairly settled, with Jermain Defoe’s brilliant recent form surely securing him a role as at least understudy to Rooney and Heskey, Wayne Bridge is a reliable understudy to Cole at left-back, Wes Brown a firm option should Johnson’s defensive frailties flare up, and Joleon Lescott and Matthew Upson secure behind Terry and Ferdinand. Joe Cole is the favoured reserve for Gerrard, with Michael Carrick and, fitness permitting, Owen Hargreaves behind Barry, and if Lampard is unavailable, then either of the back-up centre-midfielders could step in, or Gerrard would be more than happy to reclaim central role and Joe Cole would thus cover him out wide. Reserves of strength are also deep in case of injury, with able deputies such as Stephen Warnock, Leighton Baines, Ledley King, Gary Cahill and Jermaine Jenas all available should luck go against England in these next nine months.

This would leave the second goalkeeper spot, right midfield, a substitute striker and the 23rd player, the bonus role, all up for grabs. Starting at probably England’s weakest department, the role of ‘keeper would seem to be James’ to lose through either injury or a return to his ‘Calamity’ days, and second choice sees Robert Green and Ben Foster as front-runners, with Joe Hart, Chris Kirkland and Paul Robinson all outside bets. The chances are that Green, who has performed capably in his recent run between the sticks, will be the favoured deputy, and Foster, despite his dodgy injury record, could claim a place on the plane as a third keeper, should Capello choose to take one.

Another area of hot debate amongst pundits and fans has been which strikers Capello will take with him to South Africa, with Wayne Rooney, Jermain Defoe and Emile Heskey almost assured of their places, leaving another spot unclaimed. Due to Capello’s preference for a big striker to play with Rooney, and if Heskey’s recent bench-warming at Aston Villa becomes more common, Peter Crouch and Carlton Cole are the favourites, with late-season form likely to be the decider between them. The Italian may choose though to take five strikers, meaning either both could go, or another such as Darren Bent or Gabriel Agbonlahor could force their way in if they build on their promising form so far this season. The potential wildcard of course is Michael Owen, but unless he gets fit, finds form and scores a lot of goals in a run of games for Manchester United rather than being a better option from the bench than Federico Macheda or Danny Welbeck, he would surely be behind the more mobile Agbonlahor, more physical Cole or more team-orientated Crouch.

Above any positions in the squad, the most fierce competition is amongst those vying to run the flanks of England’s midfield. The pace has definitely been upped in the race for the wide roles in recent games, with Aaron Lennon’s scintillating performances against Croatia and Slovenia seeing him move ahead of the erratic Shaun Wright-Phillips, whose tendency to disappear in a white shirt will most likely leave him watching the tournament from home.

James Milner is also playing well enough to give himself a good chance of going, particularly if Joe Cole is injured once again. With Wright-Phillips and David Bentley most likely also-rans, the biggest challenges will come from the Aston Villa pair Stewart Downing and Ashley Young, with Young in particular able to usurp Lennon, Milner and even Cole or Walcott if he gets back to top form and, if given a chance for England, swings in as many dangerous crosses and set-plays (or wins as many penalties) as he does for Villa. As with Owen, one cannot rule out the past master in this position, and David Beckham’s accurate crossing and dead-ball speciality may merit a place if one winger’s form nosedives, but as with Owen, it would seem unlikely he would get in ahead of younger players with more energy, more dynamism and better form.

Were the World Cup tomorrow, then Capello would, on the basis of recent form and results, be taking Green, Lennon and Crouch or Cole with him to South Africa, leaving one seat spare to choose the final player. Though this usually is reserved for bringing an extra keeper, considering the reasonable security of Green (or, if James is out, then Foster) as back-up, and in light of the more unsettled attacking options, it may be better for England to hand the No. 23 shirt to another attacker, be it a forward such as Cole/Crouch, Bent or Agbonlahor, or another winger such as Milner, Young or Beckham.

Perhaps the best option would be for Capello to plump for Ashley Young, as he can play on either flank (or even in the hole, an option should Rooney break down or blow up), though his delivery is not quite Beckham-esque, it is significantly better than any other player in the England squad. Unlike Beckham,Young has the pace and mobility that the other more direct wingers have, whilst being a better crosser. Crouch or Cole can cover well for Heskey, and unless there are a series of injuries to the front line, it would be more practical to take an extra wide player as wingers are notoriously injury-prone and erratic in form. Some may feel that Young has a tendency to make mediocre defenders look awful and that he struggles against top-class opponents, but his performances against the big four and in Europe for Villa have been good, and similar problems dog the more inconsistent Walcott and the less creative or prolific Lennon.

Such questions, however tendentious and heated they may get, show how England possess a squad deep in quality in most areas of the pitch, and they rightly are one of the hot favourites for the tournament with Brazil and Spain, ahead of the likes of Holland, Germany and the reigning champions Italy. Their form is ominous, their momentum is relentless, and their manager is ruthless – but there’s always the spectre of penalties to make any England fan nervous.

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