LONDON – Having had what amounted to a bye into the Euro 2016 finals — Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino barely made England break sweat — Roy Hodgson will have a better idea of how far his team has come since the 2014 World Cup when it takes on Germany in Berlin on Saturday night.
There is still the well founded suspicion that while England is a serial qualifier for major finals, it will also return home after the quarterfinals in France, probably following a penalty shootout loss. It is what England tends to do.
However, two years ago England didn’t even make it past the group stage in Brazil. A Euro 2016 qualifying campaign that saw England go through with a 100 percent record, scoring 31 goals and conceding three has raised spirits after the misery of Brazil. Yet when England played a team of note last November, it lost 2-0 to Spain in Alicante, a reality check which underlined the gap it has have to bridge in June. Final judgement is reserved until the real thing starts in France.
Spain was a class above England, individually and tactically, keeping possession with almost embarrassing ease as the visitors suffered their first defeat since Luis Suarez’s brace saw Uruguay win 2-1 at the 2014 World Cup.
Friendlies can be a double-edged sword. No team wants to lose any game, but England needs to test itself against opposition stronger than it faced in the qualifiers and world champion Germany, plus Holland at Wembley on Tuesday, will give Roy Hodgson a more accurate barometer of where England is than trampling over San Marino.
He should also have a better idea of the side and formation he hopes to start at the Euro finals because with less than three months to go only Joe Hart, Chris Smalling, Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane can be confident of their places.
At the 2014 World Cup, Hodgson favored a 4-2-3-1 formation, with an attacking trident of Raheem Sterling, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck sitting behind the lone striker Daniel Sturridge. In France he may opt to play two strikers — Kane and Sturridge — and a four-man midfield.
It is make-up-your-mind time soon and Hodgson will give a chance to those players who have pushed on since the international season took a break last November.
Hart, who will miss these two matches because of injury, will be England’s No. 1 in France, but Jack Butland and Fraser Forster will be given much-needed international experience and play one game each over the next few days.
Right-back is between Nathaniel Clyne, Kieran Gibbs and Kyle Walker. One of Gary Cahill, John Stones or Phil Jagielka will partner Smalling in the center of defense with Danny Rose and Ryan Bertrand the main contenders at left-back, though if Luke Shaw proves his fitness with Manchester United he may be Hodgson’s choice.
Erik Dier and Danny Drinkwater, enjoying superb seasons with Tottenham and Leicester, respectively, seem ahead of Jordan Henderson and the usually injured Jack Wilshere for the holding midfield place. Alongside Dier or Drinkwater in a 4-2-3-1 formation will probably be Ross Barkley.
Behind Kane, if Hodgson opts for a lone striker, will be Rooney with two from Welbeck, Jamie Vardy, Dele Alli, Theo Walcott, Sterling or Adam Lallana. An outstanding performance or two by a fringe player as the Euro 2016 friendlies get underway could prove decisive for their chances in France.
While Germany comes into Euro 2016 as the favorite, the form of Joachim Low’s side has declined since winning the World Cup. It lost to Poland and the Republic of Ireland in qualifiers and was held to a 1-1 draw by Ireland in Gelsenkirchen.
Bayer Leverkusen’s Jonathan Tah is set to win his first cap alongside Mats Hummels in central defense and while Germany’s recent results and displays have been indifferent by its standards it hs never placed too much emphasis on friendlies.
But in France it will have Manuel Neuer, Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Julian Draxler, Mesut Ozil, Tony Kroos, Marco Reus, Thomas Muller, Ilkay Gundogan and Mario Goetze. Enough said.
There are plenty of good, in-form players at Hodgson’s disposal, yet it is a sobering thought that probably only Kane, with three goals in his eight international appearances, would get into the Germany team.
On the slide: When it was announced Pep Guardiola would succeed Manuel Pellegrini next season on Feb. 1 Manchester City was third in the Premier League, having won five, drawn two and lost one of its previous eight games. It is now fourth, but on a dreadful run with five defeats, three draws and two wins in its last 10 matches.
The wins were over doormat club Aston Villa and a Dynamo Kiev side that still had cobwebs following Ukraine’s winter break.
Yes, City won the League Cup final on penalties, yes, it is in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, but nine defeats in 30 Premier League games is a more accurate indication of the Blues’ inconsistent season.
There is a chance Guardiola could take over a team which is not in either the Champions League or the Europa League next season, a scenario the Catalan probably didn’t consider when he signed on the dotted line.
For all Guardiola’s charisma and City’s owners’ cash, it will be difficult to attract the cream of European football’s talent to a club playing only domestic competitions.
It seems a similar situation for Antonio Conte, the Chelsea-bound Italy coach. And like City, Chelsea needs to move out some deadwood and bring in replacements.
Big-name managers and big- money contracts have an undoubted attraction, but the best players want to play for a team with a good chance of winning the Champions League.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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