With less than a week to go before Don Fabio picks his twenty-three man squad to carry England’s hopes to South Africa, the feverish debate over the seven men not cut out to take on the world’s best continues. To wade into such a furore without half your readership disagreeing is inevitable, with club loyalties, Darren Bent’s preposterous scoring record and the fact we aren’t as bad as Portugal endeavouring to mock every selection. But wade I shall, and will present a further enlightened ‘Part Two’ to this blog after Sunday’s friendly with Japan.
Firstly, the ‘Portugal/Cape Verde’ argument should at least be acknowledged before anything else. Mexico played quick, well-organised football for most of the game last night, miles from home, and are certainly nothing to be sniffed at. ‘El Tri’ frequently stumble in the knockout stages of the finals tournament, but never go home with their heads bowed. A 3-1 victory against such a side a couple of weeks before the tournament is not a result that should induce panic. However, whatever Peter Drury may say, the performance was far from any form of ‘glorious send-off’, and left certain established England internationals with rather large question marks hanging over them.
No question mark bigger than the one hanging over Michael Carrick. Sat in a defensive midfield role, Mexico’s flowing movement of the ball proved entirely too much for the United man, who startlingly failed to complete a single one of his tackles during the 62 minutes he remained on the field. As much as one performance cannot ruin a season’s reputation, a player with such a low-key persona on the pitch as Carrick must beware the damage such a showing could do to his credentials, and must understand that he cannot afford to beg such a question of Capello. The former Spurs midfielder’s inclusion could now boil down to the fitness of Gareth Barry (which will be decided on the day of the announcement), and even a positive showing from Tom Huddlestone on Sunday, since Mexico’s tiring legs left the current Tottenham midfielder little to do in his cameo at Wembley. Fellow rank outsider Scott Parker is also likely to start against Japan, where anything more than the third gear of his motoring form for West Ham in the season’s closing stages will see Carrick’s position further under threat.
Monday night also saw the ongoing battle between Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon continue, with the only loser seeming to be Shaun Wright-Phillips. Walcott provided a typically enigmatic performance, belting down the right flank, beating man after man, before plundering balls into offside positions and no man’s land throughout (excluding one teasing, Crouch-evading cross in the second half). Lennon replaced the young Gunner, and proceeded to do more of the same, ducking and swerving inside and outside a jaded Mexico left-back before delivering very little in the way of service to the front two. However, Lennon looked in good shape, which is surely the only box to tick that remains for his inclusion with Walcott above a Wright-Phillips who has kept City’s bench warm for much of the season, and been largely out of form for the rest. Barring a riotous performance at the weekend, SWP would be my first name crossed off the thirty man list.
Swiftly followed by a large slash through the name of Leighton Baines. England are seriously suffering for cover at left-back should anything happen to Ashley Cole from now until our inevitable penalty-riddled exit, but after watching Giovanni and the ilk run absolute rings around the Evertonian last night, Baines can simply not be the answer. If Stephen Warnock even manages so much as to close his legs whilst defending the front post at a set-piece during his probable start against the Japanese, he will surely move above Baines in the pecking order for Cole’s understudy. Warnock’s place itself is nowhere near set in stone, but I would conjecture in taking twenty three men to a tournament for a maximum of seven games, having cover in each position is the least anybody can ask for.
Across the defence, Ledley King proved entirely unhelpful to Capello in his defensive dilemma, by scoring a simple goal that television commentators suggested ‘cemented his place on the plane’, before producing a torrid defensive display which highlighted a lack of pace that would be punished further by either a) a team with more prolific strikers or b) an evening where Robert Green didn’t do his best to consistently save the Tottenham captain’s blushes. Matthew Upson and Michael Dawson will look to have at least a half of football on Sunday to show Capello the risks of taking King to South Africa, with the ever-present (and ever-highlighted) injury problems that come along as baggage.
Let us end, however, on a positive note. Peter Crouch is going to South Africa. Despite the fact he is several storeys taller than anybody in the Mexico defense aiding him to set up the first goal, and a rogue arm scoring the second, Crouch showed in this the kind of physical prowess that will get him goals in the World Cup, off his illegal limbs or not. For too long Emile Heskey has been the only ‘big man up front’ aiding Wayne Rooney to a blinkered English public, and Crouch may find himself starting in such a role in Cape Town should Heskey not prove himself between now and June 12th.
Cards on the table time, then. After part one of England’s two-part friendly charade, I would suggest that Leighton Baines, Michael Dawson, Tom Huddlestone, Scott Parker, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Stephen Warnock and Adam Johnson will be the seven not going to South Africa. This is with the assumption that Gareth Barry will be passed fit, and should he not be, Scott Parker will assume his position. Note, this is not my personal opinion as to who should be going, but the prediction of what Mr Capello will choose. We now move onto Graz on Sunday afternoon, and whether a different starting line-up will change this view. More than a few victims of Monday evening will be hoping their wavering place becomes permanent off the back of it.