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A Game Apart


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Thursday, 11 March 2010

The two 35-year-olds pushing for a last hurrah in South Africa - and I don't mean Beckham, he's only 34

FABIO CAPELLO could be forced to consider two 35-year-olds when he names his initial 30-strong World Cup squad on May 11. And no, I don't mean David Beckham. He's not 35 until May 2.
Take a deep breath. These two are by no means the most popular men in football. But they may be the best we have in a defence hit by injury and off-field scandal.
If Arsenal and Manchester United continue to vie for the Premier League and Champions League crowns, the claims of Sol Cambell (18 September, 1974) and Gary Neville (18 February, 1975) have to be considered. Gasp!
Yes, I know Spurs fans hate Sol. And those at Portsmouth and Notts County have mixed views. Arsenal fans were hardly leaping about when unattached Sol became Arsene Wenger's only signing in the January transfer window.
The feeling was he would play occasionally and look for another club. But then came the disaster everyone feared - injury and unhappiness from want-away William Gallas, who looks like he's off to Roma.
Who would partner Dutch discovery Thomas Vermaelen with Philipe Senderos gone to Everton? Mikael Silvestre, the Manchester United reject? Johan Djourou, the limited stand-in? Alex Song pulled out of his midfield holding role? No. Sol got one of the toughest jobs in football, at the heart of a defence struggling behind a talented but lightweight midfield.
And the man who came so close to immortality in the 1998 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina and the Euro 2004 quarter-final against Portugal - he had storming headers unfairly disallowed in both tight games - has done a stirring job.
Then look at the problems surrounding our current centre-back options. John Terry's well-documented problems at Chelsea have seen him stripped of the England captaincy while West Ham's Matthew Upson is hardly rock-solid and Rio Ferdinand has had a torrid time with injury, distractions and suspensions at Manchester United this season. With Wes Brown crocked, England could turn to Manchester City's over-priced Joleon Lescott or Everton's Phil Jagielka, coming back strongly after a broken leg.
But just this morning, after Tuesday's stirring 5-0 Champions League win over Porto which put Arsenal into the last eight in Europe, Sol said: "I'm going to give everything I've got every time I play. The World Cup? You never know. I might get a sniff if I keep on playing. Why not?"
And with Jeremiah Sulzeer Campbell - the only man ever to represent England in six consecutive major finals (Euro 1996, 2000 and 2004 and the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups) - hoping to add to his 73 caps at centre-back, how about the older of the Neville brothers, Gary Alexander, taking his tally to 86 at right back?
Neville made his England debut under Terry Venables back in 1996 and has played under five international coaches. Injury has pushed him out of Capello's plans - but fresh injuries may force the Generalissimo to think again.
Manchester United's Wes Brown - awful at right back against Egypt, but considered a utility defender who could also play centrally - has broken a bone in his foot while Liverpool's Glenn Johnson is on his way back after medial knee ligament damage. Manchester City's Micah Richards may be considered a possible but he captained the Under 21s in their defeat against Greece last week.
In that same quarter-final against Portugal in 2004 (see picture above, with Sol and Gary in turbo-whinge mode), England seemed to lose their way when Neville, always the leader when his old pal David Beckham wore the armband, went off with Wayne Rooney.
And last night, as Manchester United crushed Milan in Europe, there was Neville providing the cross for Rooney's opening header - a devastating partnership that could be neatly replicated in South Africa this summer.
Why was Neville playing? Because Ronaldinho tored Argentine diddyman Rafael apart in the first leg. Using his nouse, his mouth and his never-diminishing energy, Gary kept Ron very quiet last night, just as Sir Alex Ferguson had planned.
Look, I'm not saying either of these veterans will survive the cut when Capello trims his squad from 30 to 23 on June 1. But our best goalkeeper David James (born 1 August, 1970) will be 40 three weeks after the World Cup final at Soccer City on July 11 - so let's not rule them out on age alone.
On popularity, Campbell would struggle and the ever-moaning Neville - reviled on most terraces from Merseyside to London - wouldn't have a sniff.
But the other 31 countries at the World Cup (apart from Spain) would certainly find a place for two 35-year-olds plying their trade at the top of the Premier League and the last eight of the Champions League.
And who knows, Sol could get the chance to score that glory goal he was unfairly denied in two huge quarter-finals. Or Gary Neville could finally score his first goal for England. We can dream can't we?

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Friday, 5 March 2010

By hook or by crook, England's squad takes shape. No Owen, Beckham on the brink, Ashley calls for the psychologist

AND gradually, by hook or by crook, England's World Cup 23 is coming together.
With this morning's news that Michael Owen is out for the rest of the season, we can sort out the strikers now, two months before Fabio Capello has to name his 30-strong provisional group.
There are no more friendlies before May 11, when those names are due to be named. So Fabio Capello is able for forget the mature talents of Owen. Sure he scored the wondergoal against Argentina in 1998, he even scored the first goal against Aston Villa in the Carling Cup final at Wembley last Sunday (before coming off for Rooney, right, who got the winner).
But in truth, Owen is now a bit-part player at United and the face that he needs surgery on his hamstring - not for the first time - will help clear Capello's thinking. Not that he's ever really considered Owen a contender. It looks like that remarkable 40-goal international tally - which puts him fourth on the all-time list behind Bobby Charlton's 49 - will never be improved.
Rooney, who didn't quite look himself in the 3-1 win over Egypt at Wembley on Wednesday, is still looking for the perfect partner up front. Emile Heskey, left on the bench while Peter Crouch went on to score his 19th and 20th goals for England in his 37th appearance, suffered in silence. He may be sacrificed despite years of diligent service for the nation. The experts want to see Carlton Cole of West Ham, believing he can disrupt sides like Algeria and Slovenia. And Spurs fans will tell you Jermain Defoe is the best goal-poacher in the country, despite his diminute stature.
In the midfield, Gareth Barry and Michael Carrick impressed as England came from 1-0 down on Wednesday, but Frank Lampard, who came off at half-time for Carrick, will still figure. Stevie Gerrard, rarely at his best for England, looks like retaining his uncomfortable position on the left ahead of Joe Cole, who apparently is on his way out at Chelsea. Despite the claims of the excellent James Milner and Shaun Wright-Phillips and the injured Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott appears to remain in the running despite this comment by radio analyst Chris Waddle on Wednesday: "He has the pace but this boy doesn't know how to play football."
The defence looked decidedly ropey against the three-time African champions. Today we hear Capello is begging Wayne Bridge to reconsider his woman-related retirement, though he is apparently "reasonably happy" with Everton's Leighton Baines at left-back, with Steve Warnock of Aston Villa as his stand-in if Ashley Cole doesn't make it.
Chelsea are flying a psychologist out to see Ashley as he recuperates from ankle surgery in Biarritz. Apparently it has nothing to do with his impending divorce from the nation's darling Cheryl Cole... or his beard, which looks like a stubbly statement about the injustices of the world.
In the middle at the back, Rio Ferdinand's appointment as captain after the woman-related demotion of John Terry is looking increasingly silly. Rio rarely plays more than a couple of games on the trot for United these days, he directs films, publishes magazines and generally does what veteran international stars do in the modern world. Why don't they just open pubs and retired disgracefully?
But if he could be bothered, stays fit, attends drugs tests, avoids women and suspension, he will slot in beside Terry with Matthew Upson and Wes Brown in reserve, though Brown may also fill in at right back if Glenn Johnson doesn't make it.
In goal? West Ham's Robert Green looked fine, David James is the experienced option, Joe Hart, the Manchester City youngster on loan with Birmingham, will be third choice.
And that's it. England's starting line-up, if fitness allows: Green, Johnson, Terry, Ferdinand, Ashley Cole, Lennon, Lampard, Barry, Gerrard, Rooney, Defoe. You'll not Ferdinand, Cole and Lennon are currently injured. It's unlikely Capello will start like that, but I think he'd like to if he could.
In the 23 finalised on June 1, you'll also have: James and Hart in goal, Upson, Bridge and Brown in defence, Carrick, Joe Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips and the excellent James Milner in midfield, Peter Crouch, Carlton Cole and Emile Heskey up front.
In the 30 named on May 11, expect to see: Manchester United's twilight goalkeeper Ben Foster who may just be the best of the lot, Leighton Baines and Steven Warnock, waiting to hear if Cole and Bridge will go, Theo Walcott still trying to play football, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Darren Bent on stand-by up front in case Rooney... oooh, I can't even think about it.
And the last man in the 30-strong squad? David Beckham. Hoping for injuries, praying Capello will suddenly have a pang of sympathy. But after leaving him languishing on the bench all night on Wednesday, he may be in for chronic disappointment.

Labels: david beckham axed, , , frank lampard, michael owen out for season, Peter crouch, wayne rooney injury nightmare