Moldova vs England: 5 Things to Watch for from the Three Lions on Friday
England will contest their first competitive international fixture this Friday, heading across Europe to Moldova where they will kick off World Cup 2014 qualification.
Manager Roy Hodgson—named to the post weeks before the past European Championships,e where England bowed out on penalties to Italy in the quarterfinals—has named a strong 23-man side for the set of two games (England face Ukraine at Wembley Stadium on September 11).
The decision to include John Terry, twice stripped of the team captaincy in the past two years, was the biggest news last week.
It remains to be seen exactly how the Three Lions will line up against Moldova. Hodgson had utilized a classic 4-4-2 formation during the European Championships but switched to the popular 4-2-3-1 lineup sweeping throughout Europe in last month's friendly 2-1 win over Italy.
Given that Andy Carroll led the forward line in that one, and has pulled out of the upcoming qualifiers due to injury, Hodgson may just revert to the 4-4-2.
What could be most intriguing are the personnel who fit that lineup. A number of the Old Guard remain with the side, but there are a number of promising newcomers—some very young, others more established but finally getting their shot at the national level—who could make an impact.
We'll see how it goes on Friday. Here's five things to watch for.
Steven Gerrard in Central Midfield
The talismanic midfielder, so often the savior at club level for Liverpool in years gone by, has struggled to acclimate to the system implemented by new manager Brendan Rodgers this season.
Much was made of Gerrard's misplaced pass against Arsenal last weekend, which led to the Gunners' first goal on the day, and their first of the season to boot. His slow start has mirrored that of his club, which have yet to win a game this season in league play, so the two-game sejour with England might just have come at the perfect time for him.
It would be a stretch to say that Gerrard needs to clear his head, but he could return from these games with a reborn confidence.
Superb in the European Championships—where he assumed a central holding role in Hodgson's 4-4-2, earning Man of the Match honors against Ukraine and cracking UEFA's Team of the Tournament—he was voted upon by fans.
It would seem likely that the manager would again see fit to play Gerrard in that role, at least to start against Moldova. The Liverpool skipper's tackling and distribution remain excellent and will be crucial components to the England attack.
With Scott Parker out of the squad because of injury, the other central midfield position is up for grabs, but Manchester United youngster Tom Cleverley could make a push for it.
Theo Walcott: Another Stirring Start to World Cup Qualifying?
In England's second game of World Cup qualifying ahead of the 2010 tournament, Theo Walcott notched a famous hat trick against Croatia in a 4-1 rout that eviscerated painful memories of finishing behind Slavan Bilic's side in Euro 2008 qualifying.
Needing a result against Croatia on the final day of qualification in November 2007, England had failed to get it, losing 3-2 at Wembley. The result caused them to fail to qualify for the tournament—the first time they'd missed an international competition since the 1994 World Cup.
The three goals would prove a decisive flow before Walcott saw his England career ebb somewhat precariously. He often seemed adrift in Fabio Capello's system, forced to adhere to stricter guidelines on the right wing—a marked shift from the freedom he enjoyed under Arsene Wenger at Arsenal.
The low point would see him miss out on the 2010 World Cup. In a testament to his fortitude, Walcott came back with a vengeance and cracked this past summer's European squad, where he scored a terrific goal against Sweden.
His contract situation at Arsenal has been a major talking point of the early season, in which Walcott has made just one start from the Gunners' first three matches.
Like Gerrard, the international break might just prove to be the tonic he needs.
Leighton Baines Should Start at Left Back
Since cracking the England first team in 2010, Baines has made nine appearances (of which just one has been in a competitive match, against Switzerland in June 2011) in the fabled white strip—all as a substitute.
That should change against Moldova. Numerous sites are reporting that Hodgson is prepared to hand the Everton left-back a place in the starting lineup on Friday after Ashley Cole was ruled out with an ankle injury picked up in last week's SuperCup match against Atletico Madrid.
It could not have come to a more deserving player. Baines has earned numerous plaudits for his defensive aptitude at club level and excels at making forward runs down the left flank.
His crossing ability is an added boon, and one that is sure to be utilized against Moldova.
Looking to the rest of the defense, Terry has passed a fitness test and should be in line to start at one of the central back positions. Hodgson will then have a decision of whether to name Gary Cahill, Terry's Chelsea teammate, or Phil Jagielka alongside him.
Both have started the season strongly, although Cahill's two goals for Chelsea—one in a Premier League match against Reading, the other a consolation in the 4-1 thrashing to Atletico—could tilt the odds in his favor.
And Up Front?
Jermain Defoe should earn a starting role based on his performance in the Italy friendly, where his 79th-minute goal proved decisive.
While the Tottenham striker has led the line in manager Andre Villas-Boas's 4-2-3-1 for the first three games of the season, Hodgson may wish to pair him with Danny Welbeck against the Moldovans.
Welbeck is one of the more talented players in the England set up, possessing the sort of pace and technical alacrity desired in a modern striker.
Adam Johnson may keep his starting position from the Italy friendly. After moving from Manchester City to Sunderland two weeks ago, Johnson has appeared in the Black Cats' past two games, getting the sort of playing time Hodgson had said will be a necessity should players wish to feature for the Three Lions.
Walcott would be his natural competitor for the right wing place, and the two players could not be more different. Whereas Walcott's threat has always been steeped in searing pace, Johnson's is of a more nuanced variety.
He is the hybrid left-footed right winger that has become all the rage in the past few seasons, with Bayern Munich stalwart Arjen Robben leading that particular crusade (followed closely by Hulk).
Hodgson could also align Walcott on the left wing, but one thinks that he may choose Walcott's Arsenal teammate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at that spot.
Will the Ox Rebound from the Liverpool Match?
The 19-year-old winger/central midfielder (many believe the latter may be the best position for his supreme set of skills) missed out on last month's friendly after withdrawing from the England camp with an ankle injury.
He has since featured in Arsenal's most recent league fixtures, coming on as a substitute against Stoke and starting last Sunday's match away to Liverpool.
Whether he was still feeling the effects of his injury, or was simply suffering from fatigue, Oxlade-Chamberlain was well below his best on the afternoon at Anfield.
Given his superlative displays last season, when he became one of Arsenal's most influential players on the way to locking up a spot in the England Euro squad, much more can be expected from the former Southampton man.
Hodgson may elect to bring him on as an impact substitute against Moldova, although Oxlade-Chamberlain could be an intriguing option at left wing, where he featured for England this past summer in the run-up to the Euros.
He started a friendly against Norway, and also started the group stage opener against France before coming on as a late substitute in the next two matches against Sweden and Ukraine. He did not appear in the quarterfinal against Italy.