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, england world cup squad, fabio capello, frank lampard, michael owen out for season, Peter crouch, wayne rooney injury nightmare