England expects: but who will Hodgson name in his final 23-man squad for next summer's World Cup in Brazil?
In just seven months’ time, England manager Roy Hodgson will be announcing his 23-man squad for next summer’s World Cup finals in Brazil after the Three Lions sealed their safe passage to South America with victories over Montenegro and Poland at Wembley in October.
How many spots, though, are still up for grabs between now and the cut-off point next June, and will there be the usual surprise selection or omission?
With only a handful of friendly internationals to be played between now and next summer, there is little time in which to catch the eye of the watching England coach, so this is the group of players we believe Hodgson will take with him on the plane to Rio.
Joe Hart may not currently be playing for his club side, however, even if the Manchester City shot stopper fails to win his first-team place back between now and the end of the season, the 26 year old will still be part of Hodgson’s final squad next summer.
Although Ben Foster is currently injured with a broken foot, he's an absolute shoe-in to be Hart’s backup in Brazil after making himself available for England selection again last February. The West Bromwich Albion No. 1 will soon be back in action.
The 32-year-old may have been dropped by his club of late, however, the Chelsea full back still remains one of England’s few genuinely world-class players. As such, Ashley Cole walks straight into Hodgson’s squad and starting lineup.
Leighton Baines, Everton’s Mr. Reliable (who by the time of the squad announcement could very well have become Manchester United’s Mr. Consistent), is sure to push his rival from Stamford Bridge all the way for a place in the first team in what is one of the more intriguing selection battles facing Hodgson next summer.
Glen Johnson is an automatic selection for the manager, and not just in terms of the 23-man squad, but the final XI too, with the 49-cap England defender currently enjoying yet another dazzling campaign on the right-hand side of Liverpool’s back four.
Kyle Walker did not put a foot wrong when covering for the injured Johnson in October’s decisive World Cup qualifier against Montenegro at Wembley, other than picking up a booking that subsequently ruled the Spurs flyer out of the final showdown with Poland. He's a certainty to go to Brazil as cover for the Reds defender.
Phil Jagielka is a real favourite of Hodgson’s. The Everton central defender is enjoying yet another fine campaign at the back for the Merseysiders and will be relishing making his first-ever appearance in the finals of a major tournament for his country at the age of 31.
Gary Cahill is now established alongside Jagielka as England’s first-choice centre half. Hodgson will just be praying that the Chelsea man gets a little more game time at Stamford Bridge as John Terry’s partner at the heart of the Blues back line between now and the end of the season.
Although Phil Jones still needs to really nail down a position for either club or country, his versatility makes the Manchester United youngster a certainty to go to Brazil next summer, where he will provide cover for Hodgson in central defence, right back and as a holding midfield player.
Chris Smalling is a player that Hodgson knows only too well after Smalling was signed from non-league Maidstone United in June 2008 by the then Fulham boss. Much like with club-mate Jones, the 23 year old’s defensive flexibility will give him the edge over rivals, such as City’s Joleon Lescott, in the fight for the final reserve central-defensive spot on the squad.
Andros Townsend is the new kid on the block, but after the impression that the Spurs flyer made in England’s two must-win World Cup qualifiers against Montenegro and Poland last month, he's now amazingly a virtual automatic pick on the road to Rio.
Theo Walcott is still out of play following abdominal surgery last month, but that will not prevent the 24-year-old Arsenal speedster from making up for the huge disappointment of being surprisingly cut from Fabio Capello’s provisional 30-man squad for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa by making it to Brazil in 2014.
There's not much to say really about Steven Gerrard, Captain Fantastic, other than the 33 year old will be the very first name on Hodgson’s team sheet for England’s opening group-stage fixture next June.
The Chelsea veteran will be 36 years old during the tournament, but Frank Lampard's big-match experience for both club and country is known to be valued highly by the Three Lions coach. The goalscoring midfield player will end his 102-cap international career in a fitting manner on the world’s biggest stage.
Michael Carrick, Manchester United’s hugely unsung pass master, is a certainty to make Hodgson’s final 23-man squad; however, the 32-year-old faces a far harder fight to win the fiercely contested battle to be Gerrard’s partner in the middle of the park come the start of the tournament.
The whole nation, and especially the England manager, will be praying that the young Gunners’ dodgy left ankle is able to last the rigours of what promises to be a taxing and arduous campaign for the north Londoners, even though the early signs are not good on that front.
Either way, though, even if Jack Wilshere can barely walk, he will still be on the plane to Rio as England’s one and only real creative spark in the middle of the park.
Currently sidelined with a knee injury, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the Arsenal tyro, is expected to be back before Christmas with a strong second half to the season for his club. Expect the 20 year old’s all-around dynamism to see the Ox just edge out City’s James Milner for this final role as back-up wide man in the squad.
As England’s one and only truly world-class front man, the United star picks himself. Now let’s just hope 28-year-old Wayne Rooney does not either break his metatarsal or get sent off in the Three Lions’ final warm-up before the tournament kicks off next June.
If the prolific attacker keeps up his current red-hot form in front of the goal for Liverpool, then not only is a place on the plane to Rio his, but Daniel Sturridge will also have one in England’s starting XI for their opening group-phase encounter next June
Danny Welbeck is another real favourite of Hodgson’s, probably because the ever-willing 22 year old has never let the England manager down. He also seems to have the always useful knack of scoring goals for his country, including eight in just 20 appearances for the Three Lions.
Jermain Defoe is another player who (worryingly for Hodgson) is currently getting very little game time for his club in the Premier League. With England hardly blessed for options up front, the Spurs marksman’s international experience, having won more than 50 caps for his country, should prove decisive in the 31 year old’s selection for Brazil 2014.
The in-form Saints front man will be Hodgson’s 23rd and final pick, with the 31-year-old just edging out the injury-prone Andy Carroll as England’s big target man for when Plan A is not working. With the campaign that the former beetroot factory worker is currently enjoying, including scoring with his very first touch for the Three Lions, Rickie Lambert, the Southampton front man, deserves it.