Tough days ahead

After a disappointing EURO, England did manage to beat Italy in an international friendly. But the future hardly looks rosy for the Three Lions. By Brian Glanville.

It wasn’t exactly the real things. England 2 Italy 1 and not even at Wembley but on neutral territory in Berne, Olympic Football having taken priority in London. After the disappointments of the recent European Championship finals and especially a defeat on spot kicks by the Italians which was much more comprehensive than it seems any kind of English success, not least against the Azzurri, would obviously be more than welcome, but the teams which faced each other in Berne were nothing more than a parody of the full potential sides.

Italy drifted in a host of previously untried players, several of whom did pretty well, but there was no Pirlo in midfield to torment and test the English defence with his penetrating use of the ball, the centre backs were a couple of newcomers and though the highly experienced De Rossi, veteran of two World Cups, was in midfield, and headed a goal which showed up the failings of the English defenders at a free kick, this was an Italy team of mere reservist.

The same, indeed, could largely be said of the England team. No Rooney of whom more later, no Ashley Cole, no Steve Gerrard who has vowed that despite his years and long previous spells of injury, he has no intention of moderating his vigorous style, no Scott Parker, no Joe Hart in goal. Instead Roy Hodgson called up, like the Italians, a number of young players largely new to the team, or seldom previously deployed.

Of these, several acquitted themselves very well, not least in midfield where in central positions Michael Carrick at last returned to a team which at one time he seemed to have abandoned for lack of opportunity while his club colleague Tom Cleverley, a notable success in the Great Britain team which did so much better than expected in the Olympics tournament, maintained the lively promise that he showed.

But as Roy Hodgson, England’s highly experienced manager, emphasises, so many of those who played against Italy are by no means sure of a regular position in their club teams which, as he says, faces him with the dilemma of whether he can use them in the international side.

Cleverley would certainly be one of those. Now free from the injuries which had interrupted his career, he would probably find a regular role in most premier or Greed Is Good sides. But United, who have now added Arsenal’s Robin van Persie to their resources, (a bleak debut versus Everton) are awash with talented players. Not only Cleverley, but even Danny Welbeck, who acquitted himself impressively upfront in the EURO, may find himself struggling for a regular place in United’s attack.

Such is the financial imbalance in the Greed Is Good League, such is the economic power of the leading few teams, that all too many burgeoning young English talents can find their paths blocked and their chances limited, leaving Hodgson, as he admits, with a serious problem of whether to risk using them in the international side.

The victory in Berne, in truth, doesn’t tell him a great deal about the new players he picked, any more than Italy’s manager, Cesare Prandelli, can tell about his own newcomers. But at least Hodgson knows he has an excellent backup keeper for Hart in the shape of Norwich City’s John Ruddy who made a couple of splendid saves when he came on in the second half and in fact looked more reliable than the new 19-year-old revelation Jack Butland who on his England debut had one or two shaky moments in the first half. And what of Jermain Defoe who scored that spectacular winning goal, having come on, as so often in the past, as a substitute. Last season he was largely on the bench for Tottenham and indeed there is a school of thought that he is best used by England, as indeed he usually has been, as a substitute. Frankly, there is no obvious candidate to be the England centre forward in the forthcoming World Cup qualifying games against Moldova, away, Ukraine, at Wembley and Poland.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Hodgson, in Berne, gave another rare chance to Andy Carroll who, for all the GBP35 million Liverpool paid for him, cannot even find a first team place there under new manager Brendan Rodgers. There is absolutely no comparison between the styles of Carroll and the much quicker, smaller Defoe, or for that matter between Carroll and United’s Welbeck. Carroll is if you like your traditional even old school centre forward who thrives on high crosses; against Italy he didn’t get them and to persist with him seems out of balance with the kind of England attack Hodgson presumably means to build.

Surprisingly but perhaps significantly, arguably the best England player on the field in Berne was the veteran Frank Lampard, a commanding figure in midfield. Which brings us back to the old conundrum — can he and Gerrard figure in central midfield together? The half-baked compromise of wasting Gerrard on his wrong foot wide on the left is surely not to be revived.

Then there is the question of Wayne Rooney. Arguably the most talented England player of his generation, yet a manifest failure in the EURO when he returned to the side after a three-match suspension which was entirely his own ill-tempered fault. Dazzling success in the European finals of 2002, he has since impressed in the 2004 tournament in Portugal before being kicked out of the game in Lisbon but has failed wretchedly in two World Cups. So ineffectual was he in the last EURO that you have to wonder whether, given his bleak disciplinary record, too, he is worth a regular England place any more.

One possible gleam of light may be discerned in the news that come October, the gifted good England passer of the ball, Jack Wilshere could return.