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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?

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Monday, 1 March 2010

The nation awaits news from the battle of Rooney's knee... or is it just a tummy bug?

GARY NEVILLE spoke for the whole nation this morning. And that alone is seriously worrying when you think about it. Still, these are desperate times. England as a footballing nation is now on red alert, defcon 1, teetering on the edge of panic.
Wayne Rooney has a knee injury. He may miss England's friendly against Egypt at Wembley on Wednesday. Uh-oh.
These are veteran Manchester United full-back Neville's momentous words this morning: "England cannot afford to lose him."
He's right. Of course he's right. The end of the World Cup is nigh. Doom, doom and thrice doom. We can do without Wayne Bridge or John Terry. But imagine going to South Africa in June with Peter Crouch and Emile Heskey up front. Or Jermain Defoe and Bobby Zamora. Unthinkable.
Even before the two goals at Milan in the Champions League and the winner against Aston Villa in the Carling Cup final at Wembley yesterday, I was saying this to anyone who would listen on Sky News, talkSPORT, BBC Radio5, on South Africa's 702... and here it is again on my birthday blog.
If Rooney misses the World Cup, all hope is gone. Neville, a veteran of "We-can end 44 years of hurt" syndrome, saw his team-mate produce another nifty header yesterday.
The stats on Rooney's rather large forehead are bizarre. Four headers in his first 345 games. Then, in his last nine, eight headed goals. All of them vital, clinical. And 28 in all this season for a man in the form of his life (we'll go into the debate about how Antonio Valencia provides more dangerous crosses than Cristiano Ronaldo ever did at a later date).
Then Sir Alex Ferguson dropped the bombshell after his umpteenth trophy success yesterday: "Wayne got a whack. He has been complaining about that knee for a few weeks and I thought we might have to take him off.
"The doctors are assessing it. I don't know what England are going to do."
Well if he doesn't know, how does Fabio Capello get to grips with a side without their talismanic striker?
Neville, who played for so long behind a certain David Beckham on the right, added: "Wayne is a great player to play with. He has been brilliant for England too. The only thing he has to do for England now is go and win something. That is what England players have been striving to do for the past 40 years. That would really crown it off for him."
The nation trembles, though Rooney himself said from the England training base at The Grove this morning: "Yes it's okay, I went for a scan today and it's just a bit of bruising. So I'm having a bit of a rest day today, I should train tomorrow and should play on Wednesday."
Neville, perhaps more concerned about United's immediate fortunes, added. "We have two months of important matches now and we need him fit for them. It is there for everyone to see. He is going through a peak moment in his career. He is maturing now."
Still, perhaps we are worrying too much. Before yesterday's final Rooney - who came on for Michael Owen, scorer of United's opener in a 2-1 win - said he was starting on the bench because "I had a little bit of a stomach bug and the manager was looking for an excuse to leave me out".
Surely the same thing wouldn't happen before an England game, a vital friendly against the three-time African champions in the build-up to the World Cup?
Who would suggest such a thing of Sir Alex? Not I. That's for sure.

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