England Camp Focus – Dawson in for crocked Rio, Gerrard’s time to step up

With Friday’s news that Rio Ferdinand has been ruled out of the World Cup following damage to his knee ligaments in England’s first training session at the Royal Bafokeng sports complex, England’s hopes of lifting the trophy have been dealt a severe blow. Ferdinand was injured in a routine challenge with Emile Heskey and has been hit with a final setback to a hugely disappointing season for both club and country.

The injury has undoubtedly come as a huge slice of bad fortune for the England captain who would have been appearing in his fourth World Cup finals and who harboured strong hopes of leading his country to glory. Ferdinand’s personal heartache aside, the loss of one of the real world class players in the England squad could well prove catastrophic to England’s chances of any kind of success in the tournament. The feeling when Fabio Capello named his final squad last week was that on the whole the squad was weak containing only a core of top quality players who all had to perform if England were to stand any chance of success. Now that core is one player less.

The immediate problem is how Ferdinand will be replaced in the starting line-up for England’s first game against the United States – a week away. Michael Dawson has been drafted into the squad as Ferdinand’s replacement but it is extremely unlikely the Tottenham defender will take his place on the pitch. There is no question Dawson has had a much more consistent season both in terms of form and fitness than Ferdinand but he is still awaiting his first England cap.

Dawson’s club teammate Ledley King is reportedly the favourite to start alongside John Terry for the opening encounter and following his own personal achievements this season many feel he is deserving of that place. However, going into a World Cup with King in the side brings about immediate problems. Capello may have taken a gamble taking him to the World Cup as an understudy considering his injury problems and his inability to train consistently but with the Tottenham captain now looking to be first choice his fitness must be acutely monitored. If King is to succumb to any problems this could see the likes of Jamie Carragher or Matthew Upson alongside Terry – a notion which does not inspire the confidence of winning the World Cup. Indeed, the team that lined up against Slovenia in last September’s friendly at Wembley could be the same one to face them on June 23, with perhaps Aaron Lennon given the nod ahead of Shaun Wright-Phillips.

Starting line-up vs. Slovenia, September 5, 2009

Green

G. Johnson – Terry – Upson – A. Cole

Wright-Phillips – Lampard – Barry – Gerrard

Heskey – Rooney

There is still the possibility of going into the final group game with something still needed from it. The 2-1 victory over the Slovenians earlier this season included the home side benefiting from a bizarre penalty incident before some nervy English defending in the final quarter of the game gifted their opponents several chances, with a lack of communication between John Terry and Glen Johnson at fault for the Slovenian’s goal. Ferdinand’s absence was felt that day for the lack of assured possession on the ball, something King could come in for over Upson.

Injury aside, King has shown for Spurs he has the talent, consistency and leadership qualities in a hugely impressive end of season that could force Upson back on to the bench. However, in King’s first international appearance for three-and-a-half years he looked outclassed and outpaced by a reasonable Mexico side, but hardly world beaters. King will have to immediately improve his performance and form a strong partnership with Terry – a player who himself has much to prove – as this will now become an area targeted by opponents. The two players should have enough to cope with England’s opponents in the group stage but teams with more ability and class will be looking to exploit a partnership clearly lacking in pace.

Despite not having the most consistent of seasons Ferdinand still remains a fantastic footballer but he also brings with him a huge amount of experience. He possesses leadership qualities in abundance which would have been heavily relied on by his teammates in South Africa both on and off the pitch. Much of this burden is now passed on to Steven Gerrard as he takes control of the armband. This creates increased pressure on a player who is already heavily under the microscope when it comes to his international performances. Gerrard has been inspirational for Liverpool season after season – albeit it less so this season – but his performances in his England career have rarely been as stirring. Gerrard has often been unlucky in major tournaments due to either injury or form and at 30 this is his real opportunity to prove his worth as a world class performer.

With Gerrard taking the armband we witness the interesting conundrum of an England captain going into the World Cup without a central or defined role in the team. If Gareth Barry can prove his fitness Gerrard will not play in the centre of midfield which could see England’s captain occupying the left flank or possibly in behind Wayne Rooney. This second option seems an attractive one considering the talents of both the players but also if Gerrard is carrying the added burden of captaincy. The Liverpool man will want to influence the game in the way he knows he can and play the captain’s role that he so often does for his club. This could be used as an opportunity to give Gerrard the central role he so desperately craves.

The loss of Ferdinand may be extremely unfortunate both for player and country but as is the nature of Capello this will have been planned for. There is no reason to look back as the tournament looms, all England can do is try and compensate for the loss of Ferdinand and go into the tournament still holding the belief that success can be achieved.

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