This week the Premier League season takes an international break as we wait and see if England can qualify for the World Cup in Brazil next summer. England face Montenegro this Friday at Wembley and Poland will be visiting England HQ next Tuesday.
The squad has been announced for these crucial matches with just one point separating the top three in England’s qualification group, and Poland only two points further back. On the face of it, England’s squad is a very strong one. There is a fantastic mix of exciting youth talent and experienced heads that should serve England well in such an important round of games.
With Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney bringing a wealth of experience to the starting eleven, it should allow the youngsters like Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley and Kyle Walker to play with absolute freedom. In such key games, Gerrard will need to lead the line with his usual sense of calm and control.
This is a very young squad by England standards and that bodes well for the World Cup should England qualify. Players such as Andros Townsend, Phil Jones and Danny Welbeck will benefit from being in the squad now ahead of a big summer in 2014. For so long England bosses have been known for sticking with ‘Dad’s Army,’ so it is refreshing to see such a youthful squad with stunning potential.
Daniel Sturridge has been in superb form ever since his switch to Liverpool in January this year. He has gone from a squad player out on the wing at Chelsea to a very unselfish, goal scoring machine playing through the centre under Brendan Rodgers. His prolific form has carried over into this season and he is currently the leading goalscorer in the Premier League, so expect him to start these crunch games.
It could be that Hodgson deploys Welbeck on the left wing with Rooney just behind Sturridge, ensuring that there is the potential for goals in these must-win games. With Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain unavailable, the right-wing slot is up for grabs, so the ever-reliable James Milner may gain a starting berth. On the other hand, Hodgson may choose to use a fluid 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation with Wilshere, Gerrard and Lampard taking the central roles in midfield and Sturridge, Rooney and Welbeck roaming at the top of the pitch.
With Jermain Defoe and Rickie Lambert on the bench, Hodgson is blessed to have genuine goal scoring talent to bring on in case of emergencies. Lambert’s strength in the air and striking nous and Defoe’s speed and finishing ability mean England should score plenty in these matches, particularly with home advantage. Between them, England’s five frontmen have scored 30 goals in all competitions. It is now up to the defence to hold firm.
England veteran Ashley Cole, with 105 international caps to his name, has withdrawn from the squad due to a rib injury sustained against Norwich City last weekend and has been replaced by Kieran Gibbs of Arsenal. It is almost a certainty that Everton’s Leighton Baines will start the match, much to the excitement of many. Baines has been in scintillating form for what seems like a few seasons now and his ability in set-piece situations particularly provides a real goal threat.
There has been much speculation regarding the form of Manchester City’s number one Joe Hart. He has been the most reliable man between the sticks for England in decades, yet his recent form has left much to be desired. Confidence issues are perfectly normal for a professional in any field, so Hodgson pledging his faith in Hart should do a world of good, and England and Manchester City fans alike will be glad to see him back in top form.
That being said, John Ruddy has been solid for Norwich in recent weeks and Celtic’s Fraser Forster is improving all time, especially with his heroics against Barcelona in the Champions League recently. It must be good for Hart to know that despite little competition for places at the Etihad, he has a number of compatriots snapping at his heels if his form continues to dip.
This is a huge week for English football: two games that require two wins to progress through automatically. England could face total elimination and not travel to Brazil at all if they lose. Should England finish second in the group, the nation will have to sweat for a little longer as a two-legged playoff in November would decide whether they have done enough to qualify. This may not be simply a formality however, as they could face any number of world-class teams such as France, Portugal, Sweden or Croatia.
Roy Hodgson will be doing everything to ensure he can avoid “Doomsday” as he put it, and the whole of the nation will be behind him on that one. Best of luck to England; the 90,000 strong Wembley crowd will need to get behind the team this week.
England has had some stunningly exciting qualifying campaigns in the past. What are your favourite memories of campaigns gone by?