'English Ibrahimovic' remains elusive as Hodgson casts net far and wide

Manager has fielded 44 players in 12 games and though talent is emerging, the team is still in flux, writes Sam Wallace
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The Independent Online

Roy Hodgson said this week that he first recognised Zlatan Ibrahimovic when the then-teenager was playing in the country's second division for Malmo. The inevitable question was: do England have a match-winner of that stature?

Hodgson's answer, as it has been for his three predecessors, was that Wayne Rooney, absent through injury this week, was the candidate. "Rooney is a top-class player," he said. "We have to hope he can produce top performances and I believe in Wayne Rooney very strongly."

Nevertheless the danger of relying upon Rooney is illustrated by his failure to play anywhere near his best for England at his last three tournaments. Ibrahimovic has never carried Sweden at a tournament either. But the "trust-in-Wayne" mantra is still the fall-back option.

"I agree with you [there needs to be an alternative to Rooney] and I think some of the players [against Sweden] have shown there are other options if they continue to improve," Hodgson said.

What is the talent pool?

Hodgson has picked 44 players in his 12 games in charge of England. It is getting to the point where just about every Englishman who is a regular in the Premier League's leading clubs has had a call-up from Hodgson. It is likely that figure of 44 will rise in February when England play Brazil.

Given that only 67 of the 220 players who started last weekend's Premier League matches are English, it means that Hodgson has tried out a significant proportion of all eligible players who are regular starters for the better sides. Already he has dropped to the Championship to give a cap to Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha.

The rest ...

Is there anyone else uncapped who could be worth a try against Brazil? It is the last opportunity to experiment before the two World Cup qualifiers, away to San Marino and then Montenegro. Young players such as Nathaniel Clyne, Danny Rose and Andre Wisdom may emerge from the Under-21s but for now it seems that Hodgson has tried out the best of Stuart Pearce's young crop.

Raheem Sterling's emergence

The most promising of the debutants on Wednesday was Sterling, who at 17 did not look out of his depth. "He [Sterling] had a difficult start," Hodgson said. "The first challenge put him down and severely winded him. I was a bit concerned how he'd react to that. But I thought his reaction was very good and he had a golden spell towards the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half and that bodes very well for the future."

The big one: Montenegro on 26 March

Not since England played, and lost to, Croatia in November 2007, which denied them a place at Euro 2008, have the national team faced a qualifier of such significance as the one in Montenegro, who lead Group H. If England lose they can still qualify in first place for Brazil but defeat will significantly reduce the margin for error.

There is little doubt that, partly because of injuries, Hodgson has wrought change. England are in flux to an extent they have not been for years. The challenge for Hodgson is to combine change with delivering England safely to the World Cup.