With David Beckham’s dream of becoming the first Englishman to appear in four World Cup Finals now all but over, thoughts begin to turn to the impact it will have on Fabio Capello’s final squad selection.
The Italian will name his provisional World Cup squad on May 16 before announcing his final 23-man selection on June 1.
Beckham has won 115 caps since making his debut in 1996, making him England’s highest capped outfield player of all time, and in second place overall behind Peter Shilton.
16 of these caps have been won during Capello’s reign and Beckham has been involved in virtually every squad picked by the England manager in his two years in charge.
Therefore, it is not unreasonable to suggest with some authority that Beckham would have been boarding the plane to South Africa in just less than three months time as a member of England’s World Cup squad.
Yet Beckham’s torn achilles tendon when playing for AC Milan against Chievo last night has ended his chances of representing the Three Lions at a fourth World Cup Finals.
So how does this affect Capello’s thinking now?
Put simply, it opens the door up for a number of fringe players to grasp a midfield spot in the Italian’s final squad.
Capello is most likely to select eight midfielders for the tournament, of which five of these are all but certain, fitness permitting of course: Gareth Barry, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Michael Carrick, and James Milner.
Beckham’s name would also have been amongst that list, as would Aaron Lennon’s if there weren’t increasing doubts over the Spurs winger’s fitness having not featured since December last year due to a groin injury.
Theo Walcott is also still more likely than not to make the plane, apparently still enjoying a lot of goodwill with Capello stretching back to that night in Zagreb 18 months ago.
Both Lennon and Walcott are still on track to make the final squad with the England manager believing that their pace is key to the team enjoying a successful tournament in the summer.
The most obvious beneficiary of Beckham’s unfortunate injury may well be Shaun Wright-Phillips.
Despite scoring and impressing as a substitute in England’s most recent match against Egypt, the Manchester City winger appeared to be third-choice in the ‘speedy right-winger’ category and could now find himself upgraded to the final squad.
However, by including Wright-Phillips, Capello would be opting for three very similar right-wingers in his squad, although the Italian has in the past utilised Wright-Phillips’ pace on the left-hand side of midfield in Gerrard’s absence.
This would not have been true with Beckham’s inclusion alongside Lennon and Walcott, as the veteran Beckham would have offered a complete contrast to those wingers, offering an option not based almost uniquely on speed, but more on accurate delivery and experience.
Along those lines, the only other option Capello might have had would have been David Bentley. However, despite a recent revival, the Spurs man’s stock has fallen dramatically since he won four caps under Capello in 2008.
James Milner is now best placed to offer a more varied option on the right-hand side, as well as covering every position across the midfield as one of Capello’s newest but more trusted players.
The door might well be open for one of Milner’s Aston Villa teammates in the shape of either Stewart Downing, or Ashley Young.
Downing is arguably the more likely as he would offer a naturally left-footed option as back-up for Steven Gerrard, although Young is equally adept at operating on that side and then using his right foot to cut inside and whip in crosses.
In a similar vein to Downing, his old Middlesbrough teammate Adam Johnson, now at Manchester City, is another option open to Capello.
Johnson was named in Capello’s provisional 30-man squad for the recent Egypt game, but did not make the cut when the final squad was named, whereas Downing did.
Nonetheless Capello is more than aware of his talents and more goals like his stunning equaliser at Sunderland yesterday and he could still force his way in.
The final option for Capello would be to go back to a player who served him well at the very beginning of his reign: Joe Cole.
The Chelsea man scored three goals in six games back in 2008 under the Italian, but hasn’t featured for his country since, due to sustaining a cruciate ligament injury.
However, Cole is now back and playing regularly for his club and, alongside Owen Hargreaves, was one of the few England players to return from the 2006 World Cup with any credit.
Cole would offer Capello skill and imagination on the left-hand side, as well as in a more central attacking role. Also able to play on the right and offering a larger goal-threat than any of the above, Capello will be keeping a close eye on the Chelsea man to see if he can prove his fitness by the end of the season.