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Issues for England coach to tackle as South Africa approaches

Defensive headaches are not Fabio Capello's only problems; the England coach has many other things to consider. Gerrard's not quite at full throttle... where to play Rooney...

Ahead of the friendly with Egypt, Pete Gill and Sarah Winterburn look at 10 issues the Italian has to deal with as South Africa approaches...

10) Joe Cole's decline

In an ideal world, Joe Cole would be a regular in the Chelsea team and in good form. At the present time, he is neither. Worse, he's caught in a horrible catch-22 that prevents an escape from his predicament: he's not in good form because he's not playing regularly after more than a year on the sidelines, and he's not playing regularly because his form has been so poor.

Capello will most probably take Cole to South Africa even if he remains an out-of-form part-timer at Chelsea, but he must be alarmed - and very disappointed - at the very real prospect that England's best attacker at the last World Cup will be no more than an afterthought this time around.

9) Gerrard running at 80%

Fabio Capello has sensibly built his England attack around England's two most naturally-gifted players. The problem is that while one of them is playing remarkable football, Gerrard is somewhat short of his barn-storming best. Whether it be a lack of consistent fitness, a lack of motivation for a faltering domestic campaign or a genuine loss of form, it's difficult to remember the last time Gerrard was truly impressive.

We assume that Capello will trust in Gerrard's ability to haul his finest form clear of whatever clouds are currently surrounding his vice-captain, as England are unlikely to play to their potential in his chosen 4-2-3-1 formation unless at least two of three behind Emile Heskey are operating on the same wavelength. The telepathy between the Scouse pair has been a key component of Capello's thus-far successful reign and if Gerrard's radar is askew - or if he simply turns up with his B game - it could have a massive impact on England's prospects. Does Capello have a Plan B, or should we say a Plan M for Milner?

8) Beyond Glen Johnson...nothing

Assuming Glen Johnson is fit, the Liverpool star will start for England at right-back in the World Cup. Fabio Capello had better hope Johnson is fit, because the options beyond him are scant in the extreme. Wes Brown is likely to be first reserve, but his only previous appearance at right-back this season was for England against Brazil in Doha, and his form at centre-half for Manchester United has been less than convincing.

Luke Young made himself unavailable, Gary Neville made himself untenable and Micah Richards might as well be invisible for all the attention cast his way by Capello. So that leaves Capello with a right-back list of a) Glen Johnson, b) Wes Brown and c) James Milner. So that's Glen Johnson or bust, then. And that's ignoring the very real fear that Johnson will prove to be a weak link on the back foot against strong opposition.

7) Heskey's creaking

At the time of writing, Heskey has managed to complete 90 minutes in just three of his ten appearances since mid-December. Capello will not be unduly concerned by the statistic that Heskey has scored just one goal during that time and only four since the season began. It's not as if his goals shortage is a new phenomenon and as it's not bothered Capello before, it's unlikely to bother him now.

However, what ought to concern the England boss is the growing evidence that Heskey's body is creaking to the point of regular breakdown. Heskey will still go to the World Cup, but can Capello afford to select just four strikers if one of those four is so obviously injury prone?

6) Keeping the faith

Back in January the goalkeeping question would have been far, far further up this list, but February brought regular football, impressive form and presumably manageable fitness to David James, who will surely go to SA as first-choice goalkeeper, as hinted by Capello over 12 months ago. At the moment there is no issue, but 'at the moment' is a dangerous phrase to use in relation to James, whose knee injury made it impossible for him to play two consecutive games earlier this season.

James may think he can play seven games in a month but at the age of 39, that's less of a guarantee than any given by a goalkeeper ten years younger. England have just two games before the World Cup - does he give Joe Hart those two England games to get used to playing with his likely teammates, or does he cross his fingers, play his first XI (including James) and risk Hart being forced into action in a World Cup semi-final with one friendly against Trinidad & Tobago under his belt?

5) Not leaving back a left-back

The time-honoured 'England star faces a race against time to be fit for the World Cup' countdown has started a few weeks ahead of regular schedule with Ashley Cole's fractured ankle.

There's an obvious parallel with four years ago when Cole was passed fit for Germany having missed most of the previous season with injury. However, one notable difference is that whereas Cole was able to prove his fitness with five comeback appearances four years ago, he is unlikely to play again during the current domestic season because of Fifa's directive that it ends earlier than usual on May 9. The governing body's determination that players arrive in South Africa fresh is thus likely to result in Cole travelling fit but bereft of match fitness.

And unless Cole is able to satisfactorily prove his fitness beforehand, Capello's scope for selection could be significantly reduced. With Milner, Gareth Barry and possibly Joleon Lescott offering potential cover for Cole at left-back, there was an opportunity for Capello to include an additional forward or midfielder instead of a straightforward understudy to Cole. Not now.

4) Distractions, distractions, distractions

It may appear that by withdrawing himself from consideration, Wayne Bridge has ended any debate about whether he will travel to the World Cup, but that may not be so. Capello has indicated that he will try to persuade the allegedly wronged left-back to travel, which is just one of the distractions that he could do without.

"I am not lucky because I prefer the normal life and to speak about football, not personal lives," said Capello, one imagines with a slight air of bafflement. In Italy the papers are pretty relentless about what goes on inside the game, but you could be co-habiting with a goat and they would not care.

While players will always claim they are professional/don't let these things effect them/don't read the papers, Bridge's decision proves that footballers do not have some super-human talent for blocking out everything except their job. There have already been media distractions about three of Capello's defenders, which is bad enough. Any others could seriously damage England's World Cup campaign.

3) Spoiled by lack of spoiler

Will there be any other team with genuine aspirations of winning the World Cup who will go to South Africa without a purely defensive midfielder - a Mascherano-style player whose ambitions begin and end with stopping the opposition by fair means or foul? Such players may be surplus to requirements in the group stages, but would you want to face Spain or Argentina with Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard as your nominally deep-lying midfielders?

Owen Hargreaves was supposed to be that man but there are now questions about whether he will ever play again, and the World Cup now looks close to a 5% chance. His absence probably means that Michael Carrick will be on the plane despite being seemingly low down on Capello's list of favourites, but the onus will be on Lampard and Barry to switch from creative to combative within England's World Cup campaign. The likes of Nicky Butt and David Batty may have been much-maligned, but their type could be much-missed in South Africa.

2) Back problems at the back

The lingering issue with back problems is that they tend to linger. Which is why Rio Ferdinand and, albeit to a lesser extent, John Terry still regularly suffer from that affliction.

What are the chances of both players making it through an entire month-long World Cup campaign without pulling up lame at some point? Given that Ferdinand, mostly because of his long-standing back complaint, has managed 13 appearances this season, the answer is surely 'not very'.

And it's not as if there are a host of viable, indisputably-class alternatives waiting in the wings behind Capello's first-choice centre halves. If there's one glaring weakness in the England squad then its the regular inclusion of Joleon Lescott and Matthew Upson. In the circumstances, perhaps Capello ought to give Ledley King another look. True enough, Tottenham's part-time footballer is the most injury prone of an injury-prone group, but that weakness could be his strength: he's used to being selected after a period of inactivity, used to playing one game for every two or three, and it's precisely that type of player Capello might need unless a miraculous cure for back injuries is found before the summer.

1) Where to play Rooney

England's World Cup qualification was built on a formation that saw Gerrard playing from the left and Rooney roaming behind Heskey. Rooney was good then but he's better now and Capello will be aware that his promotion to world-class status has largely occurred from his deployment as a lone frontman for Manchester United.

Is that, coupled with the obvious reality that the talismanic Rooney is England's best hope of World Cup glory, temptation enough for Capello to think about changing formation? Or is that temptation outweighed by the shortage of games beforehand to experiment and the danger of disrupting a tried-and-reasonably-successful formation for a potentially-superior but unproven alternative? He's paid the big bucks to make the big calls.

Comments (15)

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Ryan Mclean (Rangers fan) says...

Reply to Jordan Taylor, how can you even compare Lampard and Gerrard at the moment. Lampard scored four against the best defensive back four in the country, assisted to a great number of goals and scored a bomb again for Chelsea. As for Gerrard well his ambition to get the premier league title, champs league and world cup is hanging by a knife edge. England have a good enough team to win in South Africa but selecting Gerrard may provide more technique, but in terms of confidence and ambition he may be lacking. And in terms of strikers they should take the most in form and that would be Crouch, Defoe, Rooney and Bent.

Posted 08:42 2nd April 2010

Mathew Elliott (Liverpool fan) says...

I dont understand always before a big tournament we look at all the negatives in relation to the England, of course its just a discussion point but lets focus on the positives. Rooney has not fractured his foot so will be fit for the world cup(thank god),Gerrard is starting to improve his so called 80% performance rate, Lampard is playing great football for chelsea. In my eyes the team should be as follows - Hart/James - Cole-Terry-Ferdinand-Johnson-Barry-Gerrard-Lampard-Walcott-Rooney-Defoe. This for me is our best team and if capello wants to use defoe as super sub then play wright phillips on the left or joe cole, still a class player no matter what. Anyway lets be postive and focus on the first XI staying fit for the word cup and through the world cup so all of the above is irrelevant.

Posted 14:01 1st April 2010

Jordan Taylor (Birmingham City fan) says...

----Crouch-Rooney----- Young-Gerrard-Milner ---------Carrick----------- Cole-Terry-Ferdinand-Johnson This should be the formation used I think. Lampard is no where near good enough any more. Young + Milner play amazingly well at Villa together. And Rooney + Gerrard's link ups are truely gob-smacking. Carrick is the only man I could think capable of filling that spot and Crouch is showing how it's done. Back 4 are obvious choices, all though I despise Ferdinand and think he is terrible, he has just been promoted to Captain, so he is a certainty :(

Posted 10:51 4th March 2010

Tom Reardon (Arsenal fan) says...

I think Rooney has got to go up front as a lone striker with Gerrard just behind (I wouldnt even put Heskey on the plane, as he is just awful) and an attack minded winger (Lennon, Milner, J.Cole, Ashley Young, Walcott, Beckham etc) on either side. I would then put Lampard in the middle to do as he pleases alongside a more defensive Scot Parker, who I think has been the best out and out English defensive midfielder this term. I think that without a doubt we should be most worried about our defense which is becoming increasingly creaky (please give Upson a game against Egypt) and appointing Rio as Captain could be the biggest mistake of all as his attitude and fitness are a constant worry for all.

Posted 12:57 3rd March 2010

Amuyunzu Oscar (Arsenal fan) says...

Gerrard is the ideal captain for England i believe, and how come no one is talking about inclusion of Shaun wright on the right wing , Scot parker a combative midfielder,that the current squad misses, height advantage in crouch for crosses and set pieces and have faith in talent which rules above all- Joe Cole ,Luke young,Aaron Lennon , Carlton Cole and Reo cocker

Posted 12:54 3rd March 2010

Jon Duggan (Tottenham Hotspur fan) says...

I dont understand why he wont call up Dawson he has come along this season and now he leads the Spurs. He is a no nonesene cenre half which is perfect. I hate it when Rio starts dribbling the ball and then looses it and is out of position. King is worth a call up cos when he is on the pitch he is probably better then Rio. He cant play everygame so use him when u need him.. He can play the Holding role if needed. Is everyone forgetting about another England Striker in Great form... Defoe. Capello has to try 442 to see if they can play together as they are banging the goals in for there clubs.

Posted 11:19 3rd March 2010

Jonathan Gill (Liverpool fan) says...

Joe Hart being thrown into a semi final??? Maybe Joe Hart sitting on the bench watching England lose in the quarters because of all the problems highlighted in this article!

Posted 10:33 3rd March 2010

Tim Baker (Manchester City fan) says...

I can't see how Heskey is still considered to be an England starter when he can not even hold down a place in the Aston Villa side. There should be no doubt that Wayne Rooney is good enough to play as the lone front man. Then when you think he'll be supported by Gerrard and Lampard, argueably the two finest scoring midfielders in the world. I fancy us to do well in South Africa.

Posted 16:19 2nd March 2010

Thomas Molloy says...

Where to play Rooney ? any where as long as you play him! Why not left back ! .The form he`s in.

Posted 14:25 2nd March 2010

Dathanel Greeny says...

I am a massive fan of Gerrard. He is without doubt the best player england has to offer.

Posted 09:31 2nd March 2010

Peter Hodkinson (Liverpool fan) says...

Rooney up front with Gerrard in a free role just behind him as he does behind Torres at Liverpool. Capello has beg to get Carragher back. He can play centre back and right back if needed and is now back in form at Liverpool.

Posted 08:25 2nd March 2010

Cherry Darren (Manchester United fan) says...

why dont you play scot parker as a defensive midfilder

Posted 07:28 2nd March 2010

Mimi Rohrmoser says...

Oh please ! Gerrard's 80% is still better than most of the other english players' 100%. Capello chose Ferdinand as captain but when last has he played? He has hardly featured for Man U or England for a while now but gets the armband???? so much for capello saying he only wants players who are fit and/or play the full 90 min in every league game... what a joke...

Posted 06:38 2nd March 2010

Max Talkingsense (Manchester United fan) says...

Heres a good plan, lets focus on everything thats wrong with the england team and its preparation for the world cup! I think it will work wonders for their chances! On a separate note i gave up sarcasm as a new years resolution :|

Posted 01:57 2nd March 2010

Anon Ymous (Everton fan) says...

"If there's one glaring weakness in the England squad then its the regular inclusion of Joleon Lescott and Matthew Upson. In the circumstances, perhaps Capello ought to give Ledley King another look" Michael Dawson

Posted 17:33 1st March 2010

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