Roy Hodgson’s England football team qualified for the 2014 World Cup to be staged in Brazil next summer. Those at the top of the English game will be hoping to do enough to book their ticket on the players plane.
International friendlies generally have a bad reputation in England – they disturb the flow of Premier League and Championship seasons, and leave club managers fretting about injuries to their star players. As such they can often be lacklustre, low-key affairs. While Portugal and Sweden, and more specifically Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovich, led the pack fighting tooth and nail in the play-offs for the final world cup qualification spots, England engaged in non-competitive action against Chile and old rivals Germany.
Two defeats, two performances that will be filed away, only to be revisited as a benchmark of the way not to play at international level. Chile will line up alongside England next summer in Brazil’s football festival and showedthey deserve to be there. Alexis Sanchez, a mercurial talent in the Barcelona side of the past few years which has been touted as among the best ever, scored both Chile’s goals,and they deserved the victory. The Germany match, with all the hype and expectation caused by their distinguished rivalry, disappointed on almost every level. It felt like a training match, as both teams fielded line-ups far removed from their first choice selections.
The matches taught us precious little, as promising talent like Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez impressed on their debuts but will need to keep a high level in the club game to stand a chance of nailing down a berth in Hodgson’s final selection. Others are natural picks anyway – Rooney, Gerrard and Cole are crucial to a successful tilt at the World Cup. Further names are familiar figures who more than likely are written on the manager’s notepad in sufficiently firm HB pencil. This is how I see things shaping up for the squad at this moment, starting with those guaranteed to be starting the party in South America:
The Dead Certs
Injuries aside, Wayne Rooney has been an automatic pick for his country since he made his debut in a farcical defeat against Australia in 2003 (manager Sven Goran Erikkson changed the entire team at half time). Tied with future Manchester United teammate Ruud van Nistelrooy for second place behind Milan Baros in the goalscoring charts in his debut international tournament – UEFA EURO 2004 – Rooney has set many records for the national team. He was the youngest player to turn out for England, until Theo Walcott in 2006, has the most goals in competitive matches (28) and has the tenth highest number of appearances (88). He is also fifth on the all-time scorers list with 38 goals, behind Michael Owen, Jimmy Greaves, Gary Lineker and Bobby Charlton, who leads the way with 49 goals. Rooney has time on his side to surpass them all.
Joe Hart is a world-renowned goalkeeper, his performances for Manchester City and England generally being of the very highest order. He has 38 caps to his name, making his first appearance in 2008, but not establishing himself as first choice until 2010. The former Shrewsbury and Birmingham stopper ran into difficulties, and media scrutiny this year after a series of costly errors at club level, losing his place at last year’s Premier League runners up to Costel Pantilimon. But for the national side he has rarely put a foot, or a glove, wrong. Celtic’s Fraser Forster, Jack Butland of Stoke City and John Ruddy at Norwich, as well as the formerly retired Ben Foster, offer some competition. But Hart is the clear number one for the national side, even if he has some doubters to prove wrong.
Even at the age of 32 – veteran for a player in his position – Ashley Cole almost always delivers for his country. One of the best left-backs in the world for over a decade, Cole may have lost a bit of pace. It does not show in his work rate and effort, as he continues marauding wingplay up and down the pitch, offering talent in defence as well as attack. Cole started his career at Arsenal but moved to Chelsea in controversial circumstances in 2005, his motives behind the move being questioned. But if anything, his level of play improved further after his move across London. He has won 106 caps for England, tying him with 1940s and 50s legend Billy Wright at sixth in the appearance charts.
The final automatic pick is again a figure that has played a big role in the last ten years for England his club Liverpool, Steven Gerrard. Sometimes criticised for his inability to play effectively alongside Frank Lampard, the 33 year old has displayed the tendencies of a fine wine and matured with age. Lampard, John Terry, David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand and other members of the so-called Golden Generation have either left the national set-up or seen playing time reduced. But Gerrard has continued as a vital forward-thinking cog in England’s machine. Forming a reliable partnership with the more defensive Michael Carrick in the centre, Gerrard is free to spray balls across the pitch, and he is one of the finest crossers of the ball in the game. After amassing 108 caps and scoring 21 goals, the Liverpool captain shows no signs of slowing down.
In part two, I’ll be looking at the players who stand a very good chance of being on the teamsheet.