With Fabio Capello yesterday announcing his final 23-man squad for the World Cup in South Africa, it is the turn of England to go under the microscope; and while this entry is unlikely to feature anything like the acrimonious hubris that haunted the dubbed ‘golden generation’ four years ago, it is in a somewhat optimistic light that the 1966 champions are previewed here.
Yesterday’s announcement is the culmination of 30 months of work under disciplinarian Capello, who was sworn in after England’s disastrous Euro 2008 qualifying campaign to instil a sense of order both on and off the pitch. Gone were the days of training ground nicknames such as Stevie G, JT and Lamps, gone were the WAGS, mobile phones and idle distractions and gone were the days of supposed ‘big-name’ players resting on their laurels – Capello promised only players in form would be selected under his regime.
Thus far Capello has kept largely to his word in that respect, evident in the formation of England’s back five. The goalkeeper position that many feel should be nailed down with just under two weeks to go is healthily contested by three accomplished stoppers. Though James and Green endured campaigns struggling for survival in the Premier League, both have been anchors of consistency for their club sides, and provide a wealth of experience. Joining them in South Africa, Joe Hart has managed to force his way into reckoning after a sublime season between the posts at St. Andrews. The 23 year old is tipped by many to be England’s long term number one and a trip to the World Cup can only be of benefit.
Glen Johnson has similarly surged up the pecking order to cement his place at right-back and though doubts remain over the Liverpool wide-man’s concentration, he provides constant threat up the right flank, as shown in Mexico friendly. Between Johnson and perhaps the worlds finest left-back, Ashley Cole, England possess two unquestionably talented centre halves in the shape of Ferdinand and Terry. If the pair can stay free of injury and spells of bad form which both have suffered this term, England’s defence will be a challenge for any nation to break down. Jamie Carragher has not had the best of seasons at Anfield but his versatility will be a useful asset, and while Dawson will feel hard done by having not made the cut, his teammate King has limitless potential if injury free, which over seven games, he should be.
The selection of Wright-Phillips is questionable, though the omission of Walcott is positive and long overdue. The Arsenal winger has not featured regularly for his club and has stagnated somewhat; the promise he showed when scoring a hat-trick in Zagreb has all but dried up and he remains a largely one dimensional threat on the wing. Wright-Phillips should arguably have been left out in favour of teammate Adam Johnson who has excited since his arrival at Eastlands in January, however in recent international friendlies Wright-Phillips has impressed. Joe Cole’s inclusion is a welcome one following his outstanding performance in the Japan game where his work-rate, incisive passing and creative spark illuminated an otherwise drab display.
There was a sense of dismay directed toward Capello on Sunday, as the ever-stale Gerrard-Lampard debate was reignited in the second half against Japan. Gareth Barry has been employed in a holding role for much of the Italian’s reign, efficiently breaking up play and separating the two midfield powerhouses with some success, and England fans will hope he recovers sufficiently from his ankle knock to resume his role in the group stages. Gerrard, deployed on the left, is given license to roam in-field and has performed better than in previously more restricting roles for the Three Lions. Lampard has enjoyed another 20-plus goal season for champions Chelsea and will be eager to replicate that form for his country, while young player of the year James Milner has proved an ample deputy for either player.
In attack is where the coach’s selection policy of form over reputation can be thrown into question. Throughout qualifying, Emile Heskey partnered Wayne Rooney up front, with Capello reasoning that despite his seven goals in fifty-eight international appearances, the Villa front-man creates invaluable opportunities for those around him. Rooney’s impressive return of nine goals in qualifying can be attributed to Heskey’s selfless displays, but that would be discrediting the Premier League player of the year immensely.
Rooney has enjoyed a magical season; a term in which he has been absolutely unplayable for defences across England and Europe. 26 league goals, many of them match winners for United have seen the young forward (still only 24) fill the void left by Ronaldo and match the potential he has always had to become a world-beater. Crouch and Defoe have been a formidable partnership for Champions League qualifiers Spurs and deserve their places, but for Darren Bent a sense of déjà-vu; among the top English goal scorers in the Premier League in World Cup year, yet still missing out…