5 Mar 2014

Hodgson faces tough choices after Denmark friendly

England’s Wembley friendly against Denmark could decide which of the current squad make the cut for the Brazil World Cup. John Anderson ponders the dilemmas facing national team boss Roy Hodgson.

England Denmark Wembley friendly international Roy Hogdson (Getty)

Although it is a little over three months before England kick off their World Cup campaign against Italy in Manaus, in actual playing time Hodgson has just this one game to determine in his own mind who will make the squad for Brazil in the summer, writes John Anderson.

The trip will be immediately preceded by three friendly matches (Peru at Wembley in late May, then Ecuador and Honduras in Miami in early June), but by then the final 23 will have been decided. So the visit of Denmark represents the only real chance for fringe players to muscle their way in and for Hodgson to evaluate who may fall short.

Fifa insists on all World Cup nations submitting a 30-strong squad list by mid-May, from which the least magnificent seven must subsequently be jettisoned. With this in mind, Hodgson has chosen to cast his net a little wider than usual and named his current top 30 (minus the injured Phil Jagielka and Phil Jones) for the match against Denmark. This bigger than average pool throws up a number of interesting sink or swim scenarios.

Big-name casualty?

Hodgson has said he plans to experiment and, tantalisingly, hints that a so called “big name” could be among the casualties. The man with most to fear appears to be Ashley Cole. The Chelsea left back, who has 106 caps, could become the first English player ever to play in four World Cup finals – but will he get the chance?

Amid the increasing certainty that Leighton Baines is first choice in that position, Cole is under pressure from Southampton prodigy Luke Shaw, who will celebrate his 19th birthday on the eve of the final in Rio. The teenager is set to win his first cap against the Danes and may feel a little like a talented yet inexperienced youngster trying to convince Simon Cowell that he’s worth a place in the X-Factor final. No pressure there, then.

Ashley Cole could become the first English player to play in four World Cup finals – but will he get the chance?

Another golden oldie who may have reason to fear being usurped by his understudies is Cole’s fellow cap centurion Frank Lampard, who will turn 36 during the World Cup. His place may come under pressure from the likes of Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana, all of whom are worth a further look at Wembley. See also Michael Carrick.

Theo Walcott, who was bafflingly included in Sven-Goran Eriksson’s 2006 World Cup squad and equally bafflingly left out by Fabio Capello four years later, is ruled out through injury, so there is an unexpected opportunity in wide midfield. Four months ago Andros Townsend’s explosive entrance on the international scene suggested he would surely be in the World Cup squad, but he hasn’t carried that form into the new year with Tottenham, and the return from injury of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the sparkling recent form of 19-year-old Raheem Sterling suggests a possible two from three scenario.

Head over heart

Cole aside, the defensive situation appears more settled, with the likes of Baines, Jagielka, Gary Cahill, Glen Johnson, Kyle Walker, Jones and Chris Smalling expected to make the trip. Having set a new Scottish Premiership record of 1,256 minutes without conceding a goal, Celtic’s Hexham-born Fraser Forster deserves another start between the sticks and may ultimately edge out John Ruddy for the third goalkeeper’s berth in Brazil.

Hodgson has between five and eight big calls to make before he submits his final sheet to Fifa.

It is fair to say that, injuries permitting, a dozen or so names can be considered absolutely nailed on for the World Cup and, of the rest, only Jay Rodriguez, Steven Caulker and Ruddy would represent surprise inclusions. So Hodgson has between five and eight big calls to make before he submits his final sheet to Fifa. England’s head coach is not one to let his heart rule his head and, however contentious they may be, his final squad selections will be made with diligence, common sense and the national team’s best interests at heart.

This match may offer all of us a glimpse into his thought process, but the core of the issue seems to be a conundrum which has vexed many a former England boss ahead of a major tournament. Do you play safe with your tried and trusted cohorts or gamble on the untested vitality of youth?

The result against Denmark is irrelevant. What is important is how the new generation come through the audition.

You can follow John Anderson on Twitter @GreatFaceRadio