FIFA World Cup: The Key Battles to Decide England's Final Squad
Fabio Capello’s provisional squad announcement Sunday threw up a few surprises, including the return to international football of Liverpool’s Jamie Carragher.
The England manager now has two friendly matches, and less than three weeks before he has to declare his final 23-man squad to FIFA.
Here are the key battles to decide who will make the cut, and which seven players will be forced to find alternative plans for their summer.
Leighton Baines vs. Stephen Warnock
Wayne Bridge's decision to declare himself unavailable for England duty has opened up the door to one of these two fullbacks to play understudy to Ashley Cole in South Africa.
Cole himself missed almost three months of the season with a fractured ankle, but returned for the final few games of Chelsea's run in showing no ill effects from his injury.
Both Baines and Warnock only have one cap each, although Baines starts in pole position after having played the full 90 minutes in Cole's absence against Egypt in March.
Warnock's solitary international cap also came under Capello, but it was almost two years ago on the summer trip to the Caribbean. The Aston Villa man featured for only six minutes as a late substitute against Trinidad and Tobago.
Baines offers greater attacking threat from both crosses and set piece delivery, whereas Warnock's greater attributes are his height and pace as well as his versatility having played regularly in central midfield in his last season at Blackburn.
Chances of making the Final 23: Baines 80 percent/Warnock 20 percent
Michael Dawson vs. Ledly King
Capello included six centre-backs in his provisional squad, one of which (Jamie Carragher) is expected to make the final cut as cover for Glen Johnson at right-back.
Carragher aside Capello is likely to take four central defenders. Rio Ferdinand and John Terry obviously remain the preferred first-choice pairing fitness permitting on the England captain’s part.
Matt Upson is also well-placed to make the squad. The West Ham defender is a perennial member of the group who has won 12 caps under Capello, and played in half of England’s qualifiers for the finals.
That leaves the final spot as a straight fight between club teammates Michael Dawson and Ledley King.
The impressive form of both players was a key reason for Tottenham’s fourth place finish, but they look unlikely to be given the chance to replicate their partnership at international level this summer.
King has the experience, including being part of the squad at Euro 2004, but hasn’t featured for England in almost three years.
Dawson on the other hand, remains uncapped at international level but perhaps represents less of a gamble given King’s well known injury record and inability to train.
Capello would probably prefer to take King, but much will depend on how much he feels King could contribute during the tournament, not only in terms of games but also in training between games.
Chances of making the final 23: Dawson 25 percent/King 75 percent
Michael Carrick vs. Tom Huddlestone vs. Scott Parker
Much of this battle for the central midfield spots will depend on Gareth Barry’s recovery from his recently sustained ankle injury.
If the Manchester City man has adequately recovered, then he will make the cut along with one of these one.
If he doesn’t, then two of the above look likely to travel to South Africa.
Three months ago Carrick looked a shoo-in as a regular starter in Manchester United’s midfield. However, a dip in form at the most crucial stage of the season saw him eventually start on the substitute’s bench for each of United’s last seven Premier League games.
Carrick remains a regular member of Capello’s England set up but has only won six caps in the Italian’s 22 games in charge so far. It remains to be seen if he has fallen down the pecking order on the international scene as well as the club one.
Tom Huddlestone enjoyed his best ever season, playing a major role in securing a fourth-place finish for Tottenham, and comes into the World Cup warm-up games as one of the form players in the country, certainly in terms of central midfield.
The Spurs man won his one and only cap to date as a late substitute against Brazil last November, but he looks set to get more chances in the games against Mexico and Japan this coming week.
Scott Parker has only won three caps since making his debut back in 2003, but has forced his way into the preliminary squad after a series of sterling displays in the West Ham midfield that lead to them retaining their Premier League status.
In terms of options for Capello, Carrick boasts the experience, having been to the 2006 World Cup and played in two Champions League Finals for Manchester United since.
However, both Huddlestone and Parker edge him in terms of form at present.
Huddlestone lacks mobility but has a terrific passing repertoire as well as outstanding technique.
Parker probably offers the best defensive options of the three, reinventing himself as a tough-tackling midfielder which may well boost his chances against two players who are more reactive in terms of defensive work.
James Milner’s transformation into a central midfielder has also affected the chances of these three meaning that only one is likely to go if Barry is declared fit.
If, on the other hand, Barry is ruled out then it suddenly becomes a much different picture with a place in the starting XI alongside Frank Lampard potentially up for grabs.
Chances of making the final 23: Carrick 50 percent/Huddlestone 30 percent/Parker 20 percent
Aaron Lennon vs. Theo Walcott vs. Shaun Wright-Phillips
Unlike the battle for central midfield, these three players will be fighting for two spots in the squad on the right-wing.
Capello has spoken frequently of his desire to have outright pace on his right-hand side of midfield, given that he will most likely line up with Steven Gerrard as an unorthodox player on the left-hand side.
All three of the above have struggled at various points of the season, Theo Walcott with injuries early on and form towards the latter stages of the season, Aaron Lennon missed almost four months until he returned in Spurs’ last three games, and Shaun Wright-Phillips who found his opportunities extremely limited after the mid-season arrival of Adam Johnson at Eastlands, leading to him to completing the 90 minutes on only one occasion since the start of December.
Wright-Phillips has actually won 11 caps under Capello’s reign, which is more than both of his competitors here (Lennon has six and Walcott eight), but looking at Capello’s choices for the qualifying games tells a different story.
Walcott started six of the qualifiers, and Lennon the other four on the right-wing. Wright-Phillips started only one of the ten qualifiers, the very last one as a replacement for Steven Gerrard on the left-hand side.
Both Lennon and Walcott have been plagued by injuries, but both appear to be past their problems now, which will be a welcome boost for Capello.
Walcott, despite his inconsistent club form, still holds a high stock with Capello after his hat-trick in Zagreb, and Lennon has been picked for each of the six games he has been available to Capello for.
Wright-Phillips has filled in admirably when, either/or both of his competitors here have been injured in the friendly games, but their fitness now looks to be ill-timed for him, but perhaps well-timed for his manager.
Chances of making the final 23: Lennon/Walcott 70 percent; Lennon/Wright-Phillips 15 percent; Walcott/Wright-Phillips 15 percent
Joe Cole vs. Adam Johnson
With neither Stewart Downing or Ashley Young make the provisional 30-man squad, it will come down to one of these two to cover for Steven Gerrard on the left-hand side of midfield, although James Milner is also versatile enough to play the position.
The two offer entirely different options for Capello to consider.
Cole is experienced, with over 50 caps for England, but only really returned from a long injury layoff in the second half of the season, and would offer a similar option to Gerrard in terms of cutting in from the left on his right foot.
Johnson, however, is uncapped at senior level, having only returned to the Premier League in the January transfer window after spending the first half of the season in the Championship with Middlesbrough.
The Manchester City man would offer a more orthodox option, as a left-footed winger playing on the left, but has played most of his football since his mid-season move on the right, enjoying a lot of success and earning rave reviews for his ability to cut inside dangerously on his left.
Expect both to be given game time in the upcoming friendlies as Capello seeks to decide which player to go with.
Chances of making the final 23: Cole 50 percent/Johnson 50 percent
Darren Bent vs. Jermain Defoe
Fabio Capello, unless he has a sudden change of heart, seems set to stick with his belief of taking two players for every position and, therefore, going to South Africa with four strikers in his 23-man squad.
Wayne Rooney’s spot is obviously assured. Seemingly, Emile Heskey’s is too as Rooney’s partner of choice.
Despite a particularly poor end to the season with Aston Villa, the veteran striker of the 2002 World Cup looks set to make the cut thanks to his performances during the qualifying campaign.
Peter Crouch’s goals record for England speaks for itself, and despite losing his first-XI place at club level towards the end of the season he fought back, and scored the goal that guaranteed Spurs’ their much coveted fourth-place finish.
The final place in Capello’s forward selection looks set to be a straight battle between Jermain Defoe and his former Spurs teammate Darren Bent, now of Sunderland.
Bent struck a mighty 24 goals in his first season at the Stadium of Light, and it is to his credit that he has forced his way into Capello’s thinking at all.
The striker’s position seemed to all but sown up, but Defoe suffered a drop in form in the second half of the season, finding the net only four times in 16 Premier League appearances in 2010.
This run has seen his position come under threat, but Capello will look back on Defoe’s eight goals in 13 games under his management, and be confident that the Spurs man can continue to do the job at international level.
Chances of making the final 23: Bent 15 percent/Defoe 85 percent