As the England starting XI was presented to the media Saturday afternoon, everyone knew it would be a hugely important Sunday lunchtime for a handful of players who were given a last chance to impress and secure their place on the plane to South Africa and the
Glen Johnson – John Terry – Rio Ferdinand – Ashley Cole
Theo Walcott – Tom Huddlestone – Frank Lampard – Aaron Lennon
Wayne Rooney – Darren Bent
None more so than Darren Bent. The Sunderland striker was only beaten in the Premier League goalscoring chart by the mercurial Wayne Rooney and devastating Didier Drogba – so surely a shoe-in for a World Cup spot? Unfortunately, he has yet to make his mark on the international stage, and his limp 45 minute showing might be his last for a while. Given the ideal opportunity alongside Rooney up front, Bent was the focal point of the attack, with Rooney even dropping off and acting as a link for the Sunderland man. But Bent flattered to deceive once more and missed a decent opening midway thought he opening period that summed up his miserable afternoon. It is all massively disappointing for a striker with the hallmarks to not only be a valuable squad member in South Africa, but even a nailed on starter. Indeed, looking at the other three forwards he is competing with, the former Charlton Athletic man seems the most complete forward, and the one who fits into England’s system the best. His finishing, pace and general goalscoring instinct is similar to that of Jermain Defoe and he possesses some of the strength and power Emile Heskey offers the side too. If there was ever a goal that epitomised this it is his strike against Everton on Boxing Day last year where he flicked on a high ball to his striker partner (Heskey-esque), before spinning his marker and sprinting into the box and finishing superbly with his head from the ensuing cross (Defoe-esque). It was a goal none of the other three, including Peter Crouch, would have been capable of scoring and is the reason Bent is such an asset. It is just a shame he seems to have let his international chances pass him by.
Another to be given a chance to prove his worth was Tom Huddlestone. Something of a surprise addition to the 30-man squad, the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder had a great opportunity to shine, and with the possible absence of Gareth Barry and the unceremonious decline in Michael Carrick’s form, his chances have been growing by the day. But again, he did nothing to force Fabio Capello’s hand or provide the Italian with any real food for thought. Huddlestone’s passing and composure is superb, much like Carrick, but he struggles to impose himself on a midfield and Japan’s tidy central play often meant he was by-passed far too easily. His ability is unquestioned but his off-the-ball work is still not up to scratch, something that looks like ultimately costing him a spot on the plane.
If we are looking for other players fighting for their places, Theo Walcott would be on the list and he was again given a starting berth. It would be fair to say we learnt nothing new here about the Arsenal winger. He continues to frustrate and this writer continues to struggle for reasons why he should continue to be given chances. His pace is frightening, of course, but his actual impact on a game in recent memory is minuscule. If Capello is tempted by his Croatia heroics over 18 months ago, he could be forgiven, but many would suggest there are better, safer options.
Staying on the subject of possible casualties from the squad, one Joe Cole has been at the centre of much debate this week, with his place on the bench having many thinking he was on the next flight back to England. However, his second half showing – in three different positions – have certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons and if this writer could offer his opinion once more, it would be that the Chelsea man should be a certainty for the final 23. His awareness, inventiveness and just genuine quality was there for all to see, and his role in the first goal (and the second to some degree) was superb. As an impact player he would be a real asset, but there was another very interesting development today as Cole found himself at the centre of a few experimental ploys by Capello.
When first entering the fray at half-time, Cole was thrust into the role Rooney occupied of the opening 45 – behind the striker. It is a role the former West Ham man thoroughly enjoys and his clever touches and intelligence caused the Japanese some real problems for his half an hour stint in that position. Whether or not it is a genuine option for Capello remains to be seen but Cole showed his flexibility and adeptness to the task. Surprisingly this is an option many have been pushing Capello to employ, but with Steven Gerrard in the hole behind Rooney instead of Cole. Talk is rife that this is a snug fit for all involved but we are yet to catch a glimpse of it in any matches as yet. Whether it is something Capello has been secretly developing behind the scenes is a possibility for a surprise ploy in the tournament itself. For this game however, Gerrard found himself in a deeper role, alongside a certain Frank Lampard. Now we have been here before, but with Carrick far from where England need him to be and Barry and Owen Hargreaves at different ends of rehabilitation, could Capello be forced to give it another go? For what it is worth, they both performed very well together here, but that is far from a solved problem. We are all certain it could work, in fact it should work, but let’s face it, it has not and heading into the World Cup with it as the first choice pairing is still an uneasy option.
So there it is. The next time this England team take to the pitch, it will be a World Cup match. That is less than two weeks away and as the country watches nervously as seven players are cut, there will still be so many more questions left unanswered before June 12.
England 2-1 Japan – Tanaka (og 71, Nakazawa (og 83) – Tanaka 7
England: David James (Joe Hart, 45), Glen Johnson (Jamie Carragher, 45), Ashley Cole, Tom Huddlestone (Steven Gerrard, 45), Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Theo Walcott (Shaun Wright-Phillips, 45), Frank Lampard, Darren Bent (Joe Cole, 46), Wayne Rooney, Aaron Lennon (Emile Heskey, 75)
Japan: Eiji Kawashima, Yuji Nakazawa, Marcus Tanaka, Yuto Nagatomo, Yusuyuki Konno, Yasuhito Endo (Keiji Tamada, 86), Makoto Hasebe, Abe Yujki, Keisuke Honda, Yoshito Okubu (Daisuke Matsui, 72), Shinji Okazaki (Takayuki Morimoto, 65)