Who would have thought that, with only one day left for England until their opener in Brazil, we would be taking about something other than the football? Well it appears that it is the case this time out in Manaus. Worrying pictures have begun to surface on social media prior to the game seemingly showing pitch conditions of the Arena Amazonia that you would be more accustomed to seeing at your local park. Large areas of the pitch close to one of the goal areas look baked and bare, and certainly not close to the standard that would be expected in the pinnacle of sport that the World Cup is. This news, incredibly, may have been welcomed by the respective players, taking the focus of the men themselves for a few hours at least. Anyhow, there is indeed a match to be played beneath all of the press conferences, mind games and additional controversy that is currently making the headlines. With the Italians rumoured to be using a defensive 4-5-1 formation in training , this is the team that I believe, Roy Hodgson will select.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Joe Hart will be picked between the sticks for Saturday’s group opener. Despite a poor run of form during the league season where Hart found himself on the bench, he came back into the side and played a crucial part in Manchester City eventually lifting the Premier League title. While 27 years of age is still no age in the life of a Goalkeeper, Hart already has a wealth of experience on his side that will stand him in good stead going forward into future major tournaments. Hart is generally seen as a world class Goalkeeper, and I will be surprised if he misses a single minute in Brazil.
The English defence ahead of the Italy game is probably the most predictable area of the team. Roy Hodgson has stuck to a general trend throughout qualification and in the warm up friendlies of the mature centre back pairing of Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka. Both players have had strong seasons for their respective club sides, and will certainly line up alongside each other bar any last minute injury.
As for the full backs, Leighton Baines has ousted Ashley Cole so much in the last 2 years that the latter wasn’t even selected in the 23 man squad. His starting place seems set in stone, with inexperienced 18 year old Luke Shaw the only other viable option.
Right Back is an area where England have looked lacklustre in recent years. While Glen Johnson was arguably England’s best player in Euro 2012, he has received a lot of criticism of late in the media and on social media from so called armchair experts. Kyle Walker may have been England’s first choice at Right Back had he been fit, but injuries are as big a part of a major tournament as anything, and the pelvic problems more specifically keeping him out of the squad. For lack of a better option, Glen Johnson will start at Right Back.
Captain Steven Gerrard will be the first name on the England teamsheet in the deep lying playmaker role, with the issue as to who he plays alongside a hot topic. Jordan Henderson’s fantastic season with Liverpool has propelled him from being the forgotten young talent of English football to a potential World Cup starter. His tireless box to box nature in the midfield is something which could aid England greatly in what will surely be a midfield ‘power struggle’ come Saturday. Hodgson may take note of the fact that Gerrard and Henderson are midfield partners at club level too, with their playing styles complimenting each others nicely.
The third midfield spot would likely have gone to Jack Wilshere a year ago, however, recurring niggling injuries throughout the season, coupled with the special season that Adam Lallana has had means that Lallana himself will likely be the advanced playmaker of the midfield three. A mention also has to go to Ross Barkley who has not only had a breakthrough season with Everton, but has caught the eye of many in the recent international friendly matches, making a late push for a starting place.
In saying that, I believe that Roy Hodgson will take no risks with young players, and select a midfield three of Gerrard Henderson and Lallana.
The selection trio of the lone Striker and two Wingers has split experts and pundits alike over recent weeks. Much was made of Wayne Rooney heading out to Brazil before his teammates to put in additional fitness work ahead of the tournament, but Rooney himself has been under the media spotlight for poor performances in warm up matches. Rooney’s (unwanted) record of never scoring a World Cup goal has come into question, but many feel he is being unfairly singled out.
Daniel Sturridge and his 24 goals in all competitions last season have put him in pole position for a World Cup start. High on confidence and full of ability, Sturridge cannot be ignored – and a scoring streak in the group stages could propel England into the Round of 16 with ease.
The final wing spot was looking like being a shootout between Welbeck, Sterling and Oxlade-Chamberlain, but The Ox picking up the knee injury in the manner that he did has restricted him to appearing in the final group game at best. Forgetting the fact that Danny Welbeck has also struggled with a knock in training this week, Raheem Sterling would still have been my choice to start on the left wing. James Milner is also worth a mention should Roy Hodgson be looking for an extremely conservative approach which he may have done in time gone by.
I fully expect to see a front three of Sturridge, Rooney and Sterling from the start. The arrangement of the three is still hard to call, but Sterling on the left wing, Sturridge as an inside forward from the right, and Rooney as the Centre Forward is certainly the way I would set up.
Hart; Johnson Cahill Jagielka Baines; Henderson Gerrard Lallana; Sturridge Rooney Sterling
A cagey match could be in the offing in Manaus, with neither team wanting to give away an early advantage in the game, and in the group table. It will be interesting to see how both sides cope with the intense heat and humidity on the night, with fitness possibly coming into play as a direct consequence. I think I speak for all fans in saying that I hope a bad bounce or unexpected bobble off of the suspect looking pitch does not cost one of the teams. So close to call, but I will fall into the trap, as I always do, of predicting a 1-0 win for England.