LONDON – Roy Hodgson has three games in which to finalize his England squad for the World Cup finals.
Brazil 2014 may be seven months away, but the countdown began with Friday’s visit of Chile, when the England manager will probably give first caps to goalkeepers Fraser Forster and John Ruddy plus the Southampton pair Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez.
For many, friendly internationals mean little. For the debutantes, the game against Chile represents almost a make-or-break World Cup audition with perhaps no second chance. After next Tuesday’s match against Germany at Wembley, England has only one more game next March before Hodgson must name his 23-man squad for the finals.
Hodgson probably has 19 or 20 players penciled in for Brazil so the debutantes will need to make the impact that Tottenham winger Andros Townsend did against Montenegro, scoring in his first senior international.
“These games are important,” said Hodgson. “With only three games before I name the squad, it tempers my thinking with the balancing act between trying some new players while keeping a group of players who need to continue playing together.”
Joe Hart remains England’s No. 1 goalkeeper despite being dropped by Manchester City. Hart will start against Germany with Celtic’s Forster playing against Chile with Norwich’s Ruddy perhaps coming on for the final 20 minutes.
“I feel it’s important to look at one, possibly both, of the other two goalkeepers,” said Hodgson, who emphasized playing in Scotland has not affected Forster’s international career. “Forster has been held back by Joe Hart who conceded only four goals in 10 qualifiers, not by playing in the Scottish Premier League.”
Southampton captain Lallana will win his first cap, Ross Barkley of Everton his second, but Hodgson had plenty of options in midfield with Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Jack Wilshere, James Milner and Phil Jones plus wide men Theo Walcott and Townsend.
Rodriguez has the chance to make himself the understudy to Danny Welbeck and Hodgson said: “We see in Rodriguez as someone who is a wide forward who can attack people with or without the ball. It might be an interesting opportunity to get to know more about him, all our information has been gleaned from the stand, not working with him.”
Hodgson’s trickiest selection is at left-back, where Ashley Cole has been an undisputed first-choice for 12 years. Now 33, he has lost his place in the Chelsea team to a right-back, César Azpilicueta, and Leighton Baines, consistently impressive for Everton, is unfortunate to have only 21 caps.
Hodgon places loyalty high on his priority list and will be reluctant to jettison a player with 105 caps who has never let England down.
It is good to be spoiled for choice, but with so little to choose between the players Hodgson knows whichever he selects he will be criticized. He said: “Both have their supporters and both are fantastic footballers. Ashley has been a lynch pin for so long. He has 100-odd caps. But Baines has always been appreciated. I am not going to say one is the No. 1 choice. It does give the manager a headache because I have to decide on one and whoever I choose will divide opinion.”
Both will go to the World Cup, but one will be very disappointed.
Hodgson is aware that Chile will test his experimental side. The South Americans are two places behind England in the FIFA world rankings and have won nine of their last 13 games. This is why Wayne Rooney, in devastating form for Manchester United, is certain to start, having scored six goals in eight internationals this year.
The old guard will be back for Germany, which England will hope to avoid when the World Cup draw is made next month.
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THE REPUBLIC of Ireland players were having breakfast when a surprise guest arrived. Roy Keane usually had breakfast in his room, which was his room. Players normally share rooms, but there was no jealousy or objections for the preferential treatment handed to the captain.
Keane sat down at a table where, among others, Jason McAteer was having tea and toast. “Hello mate,” said McAteer. “I’m not your mate,” said Keane. “I work with you. Don’t think I’m your mate.” I have removed the five, yes five, expletives from the three sentences.
McAteer maintained that avoiding a rollicking from Keane was his ultimate motivation. Keane was the coldest, least likeable player I ever covered. He was also the best in his position as defensive midfielder, an inspirational leader who, when he was about to win his 50th cap, I asked him what it meant to him.
“Absolutely nothing,” he replied with a stare that bordered on frightening. Not just nothing, absolutely nothing. Only beating Cyprus mattered.
When a Manchester United player texted Keane his new mobile phone number, the Irishman replied: “Why do you think I want your number?”
Keane is Siberian cold, a man who cannot comprehend how anyone could want his autograph or what him writing his name can possibly mean to anyone.
All of this made Keane a football writer’s dream. Unpredictable and too often with unacceptable behavior, Keane was always newsworthy. After a stint with ITV, he is now back with Ireland as Martin O’Neill’s assistant and a previously “nothing” friendly against Latvia on Friday has suddenly become front and back page news.
The media may not like Keane, they will be wary of him, but his return makes the job of those covering Ireland so much easier.
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FOUR WEEKS AGO, Jose Mourinho was sent to the stands during the game against Cardiff City for comments made to referee Anthony Taylor. Last Saturday, the Chelsea manager was allegedly involved in a tunnel bust-up involving 20 players after calling West Bromwich defender Jonas Olsson a “Mickey Mouse player.”
When Mourinho returned to Stamford Bridge last summer the so-called Special One said he was now the Happy One, telling everyone he was “calmer” and that “I now have a different approach and perspective.”
And many people believed all this.
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THE MOST astonishing photograph of the week was that of Andre Wisdom’s car abandoned in a muddy wood after, apparently, his GPS device gave him incorrect information. The collective raising of eyebrows was not because Wisdom had taken the mother of all wrong turns, but because the car he was driving was a Porsche Panamera Turbo worth £108,000. Insurance is estimated at around £8,000 a year.
Wisdom is 21, the current captain of England’s Under-21 side and on a season-long loan to Derby County from Liverpool. Not a bad car for a player who signed his first pro contract just two years ago.
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HULL CITY are shortening their name to Hull Tigers. According to the club’s Egyptian owner Assem Allam, they are, at present, known as Hull City Tigers so making them Hull Tigers will, in fact, be shortening the name. Now you know.
Sorry to be pedantic, but they have been called Hull City since 1904. Their yellow and black striped shirts gave them the nickname Tigers and apart from Allam, it is unlikely anyone believes they are called Hull City Tigers.
Allam also believes the change will enable the club to “market itself globally, making the millions of pounds it needs to become sustainable in the Premier League . . . Manchester United are selling shirts in the Far East . . . we need the club to be known globally, and shortening the name will make the club known globally.”
He saved the best for last. “Tigers are a symbol of power.”
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph..