England's qualification for Euro 2012 ignited the debate as to who should start the opening game of the tournament... a full eight months
Despite a scrappy performance on a tumultuous evening in Podgorica, England can at least take solace in having confirmed their place at Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine.
As expected, the top seeds from Group G took top spot even after letting a two goal lead slip against the relative minnows from Montenegro. At the final whistle, those dressed in red celebrated as if they had secured an automatic qualification berth, whilst the somewhat sheepish Englishmen left the field wondering how they had drawn a game which they had earlier been in total command of.
That is except for Wayne Rooney, who had departed 15 minutes early thanks to a petulant kick aimed at the Montenegro defender, Miodrag Dzudovic. Whatever the merits of Rooney’s selection on the night or the reason for his indiscipline, the resultant suspension has exacerbated talk of team selection for the European Championships.
It is at this stage in every successful qualification campaign that journalists and fans begin to give their opinion on who should start England’s first game of the upcoming tournament. England are certain to be without their talismanic striker for this fixture and subsequently everyone has a point of view on who should take his place.
Furthermore, it seems people have also made up their mind who should occupy positions one to eleven. “(Phil) Jones has to be centre half alongside John Terry”, was the assertion from one journalist in the aftermath of the weekend’s action.
Why? Phil Jones has looked very impressive for Manchester United so far this year and I anticipate a highly successful campaign for the man signed from Blackburn Rovers in the summer. Should this expectation come to fruition, I agree Jones will have a very strong case to occupy one of the available centre back slots.
But we can only speculate at this moment. We can only speculate that young Jones will maintain his form throughout the year. Speculate that Sir Alex Ferguson will give him game time at centre half. Speculate that he will be fit.
This process of trying to second guess the England side eight months in advance is part of the reason we invariably end up picking the established names for major tournaments rather than the players in the best form.
There were significant contributions – and not necessarily in the positive sense – from Robert Green and Matthew Upson at the last World Cup. Both men were established members of the qualification campaign yet both had (at best) mediocre seasons in a West Ham defence that shipped 66 goals.
Meanwhile, the form players going into the tournament included Joe Hart and Adam Johnson. The former had to be content with a bench role and the latter was left at home despite finishing the season in scintillating form.
Adam Johnson has since become the forgotten man of England. The emergence of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, combined with Johnson’s lack of club action, has pushed the Manchester City winger down the international pecking order.
By current assessment, Adam Johnson has no place in the England team that will take to the field for this summer’s Euro’s. But who is to say that come May he won’t be terrorising Premiership defences yet again, either by forcing his way into the Manchester City team or by securing a January move?
Jack Wilshire, currently out with a lengthy injury, will hopefully have returned to the Arsenal fold in time to prove his form and fitness. If he does so, he will no doubt be on the way to Eastern Europe. And if he struggles to prove his form and fitness? Well, he will probably be on the plane anyway.
Of course those players who have established their England credentials or are in form right now deserve to be at the forefront of Fabio Capello’s thinking ahead of June. However, they should only be making up part of the talent pool that the England boss needs to keep an unrestrained eye on over the next few months.
There is a new breed of talent in the Premier League; the likes of Daniel Sturridge and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are generating a lot of buzz in the early stages of the season. These are the players Capello should monitor over the season and assess whether they can develop enough to assist England’s Euro assault.
An open mind and willingness to experiment with personnel in the upcoming friendlies will be crucial to any hope England have of performing well at next year’s main event, especially with Rooney’s impending ban.
Nevertheless, with 241 days still to go until the opening game of the tournament, it is more important in the immediate fixtures for Capello to corroborate his plan for how he wants his side to play. Ideally, this plan will be augmented by an alternative – or two – should plan A go awry. Then, as the event nears, the form players can be asked to put his plan into action.
As much as the nation would love to pick their finals squad tomorrow, England cannot legislate for what may happen between now and June. There will no doubt be a metatarsal injured somewhere along the line and in all likelihood the eventual squad will comprise at least one member who is considered a ‘gamble’ because – based on past performances – they cannot afford to be left behind.
Surely a better philosophy would be to pick the squad next May?