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With little over two months to go before Roy Hodgson has to name his final 23-man squad for the World Cup in Brazil, the national team manager has a few dilemmas to contend with. Although the side’s spine is practically set in stone, barring injuries, there are places in the squad which remain up for grabs. Sentiment may play a part in a number of call-ups, as the country’s supposed “Golden Generation” sees its last remnants reach the climax of their international careers. However, Hodgson must focus on the here and now, picking players based on form rather than reputation or past endeavours.
The nation’s undisputed number one, Joe Hart, is the current Manchester City custodian, whose form has vastly improved since he was dropped for six weeks before Christmas by club boss Manuel Pelligrini. The 26-year old is a certainty to board the plane to South America and will be hoping to reach forty international caps when England take on Peru at Wembley on May 30th. Likely to accompany Hart is Celtic’s Fraser Forster, who has excelled both domestically and in European competition this season. The ex-Newcastle man has drawn plaudits from across the continent and would provide strong back-up if Hart was to falter. Meanwhile, the third spot is likely to come down to a decision between John Ruddy and Ben Foster. Both have played in struggling sides this year, though Ruddy looks the more likely to be in Manaus come June 14th.
In front of Hart there remain a few details to be sewn up, largely regarding the defenders Hodgson opts to take as back-up to his starting XI. The fight to secure the right-back slot looks set to be between Liverpool’s Glen Johnson and Tottenham Hotspur’s Kyle Walker. Although Johnson has been chastised in the past for neglecting his defensive responsibilities in favour of forward forays, the Greenwich born full-back has prior tournament experience, whilst Walker often displays naivety that could come back to haunt England when they take on superior national sides.
At centre-half, Hodgson sees Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka as his most reliable pairing and the duo played together in the majority of England’s qualifying games. In terms of back-up, Manchester United double act Phil Jones and Chris Smalling represent up-and-coming talent, whilst both have proven to be versatile in their careers to date and will add depth to the squad. In case either one is injured, Cardiff City’s Steven Caulker may be worth consideration, though a call on ex-captain John Terry would likely disrupt the squad.
On the left-side of defence, Leighton Baines appears to have secured his slot in the starting XI, though it is with regards to his understudy that Hodgson faces his most prominent quandary. Whilst Ashley Cole has been a mainstay of the national side for the last ten years, his place in the Chelsea team has been lost since José Mourinho’s return in the summer. As a result, Hodgson must choose between sentiment and sticking to the principle of picking players based on form. Though Cole has performed a stellar job for the national side in the past, now is the time for him to stand aside and let the impressive Luke Shaw seize his opportunity.
In midfield, there remain an array of combinations which Hodgson could choose to utilise in Brazil. Liverpool and England captain Steven Gerrard deservedly leads the side to his sixth international tournament and will surely be partnered by club-mate Jordan Henderson. The ex-Sunderland man had been lambasted since his move to Anfield in 2011, though his form has improved immeasurably this season, as he has become a mainstay of the Liverpool side fighting to secure the title at the top tier of English football for the first time since 1990.
Although Tom Cleverley has proven to be a favourite of Hodgson’s, the midfielder lacks the ability to compete at the highest level for club and country. In contrast, Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere looks likely to deliver on the promise that saw Arsène Wenger hand him his debut aged 16 and should be picked, as long as he overcomes the foot injury sustained against Denmark in early March. Meanwhile, Ross Barkley has broken in to the Everton team under Roberto Martínez and would represent a far lower risk than that taken by Sven-Göran Eriksson when he took Theo Walcott to the 2006 tournament. Both of the aforementioned picks would be preferable to a call-up for Frank Lampard who, despite years of solidity for England, never replicated his club success and is in the twilight of his career. Michael Carrick and Gareth Barry are both in with a chance of making the final cut, though with so many strong options open to Hodgson, they face a fight to be in the squad for Brazil.
Manchester City’s James Milner represents a versatile option that Hodgson would be foolish not to call-up and should be joined on the plane to Brazil by Shaw’s teammate Adam Lallana. The midfielder has been a jewel in the Southampton side this season and provides a cutting-edge and flexibility, mirrored by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a fellow Saints Academy graduate. With Theo Walcott’s World Cup hopes shattered by his season ending knee injury, Raheem Sterling will need to step up and utilise his pace and trickery when called upon by Hodgson.
In the forward positions, Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge are both certainties to be named in Hodgson’s squad, whilst Rooney’s Manchester United club-mate Danny Welbeck provides an alternative choice. Southampton pair Ricky Lambert and Jay Rodriguez may consider themselves unfortunate to miss the final cut, and barring injury to any of the preferred three, will probably find themselves watching England’s opening game against Italy on the TV rather than from the bench. Andy Carroll’s career has been somewhat re-invigorated by his West Ham United move, though his lack of goals remains a crux issue that rules him out of contention for the World Cup.