Carrick on hunt for big games

United's midfielder is still in the shadow of more illustrious England colleagues – but in the next eight days he has the chance to become one of Capello's inner circle

Among the big names of England's midfield, Michael Carrick has always been strictly small fry, settling for the role of stand-in or substitute when the superstars are unavailable. Over the next eight days, Fabio Capello will give him the chance to prove that he can be the alternative to the usual suspects in the centre of midfield.

The players convened last night for the last two World Cup qualifiers of a campaign that has already achieved its stated target but there are still reputations to be made and a very demanding coach to impress. Carrick is one of those for whom the matches against Ukraine on Saturday and Belarus four days later are not unimportant but an opportunity to plant an idea in his manager's mind as he shapes his squad ahead of South Africa next summer.

Carrick has not been the same since he broke his foot during the Champions League final in May, a misfortune that contributed to him being eclipsed by the Barcelona midfield on the night. Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, has observed this month how it takes until October for Carrick to "get into his stride" and dropped him for Saturday's game against Sunderland after the midfielder scored the winner against Wolfsburg.

At 28, Carrick has three Premier League winners' medals and United's Champions League triumph from last year but there is little doubt that his personal standing has not yet properly entered the stratosphere of his England midfield contemporaries. His medal collection might be more impressive but his reputation still lags a long way behind that of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard – even Gareth Barry can lay claim to being a more regular fixture for club and country.

Yet Carrick intrigues Capello and his Italian assistants who regard him as an alternative when they do not require two holding midfielders but rather when they want a player whose key strength is passing the ball. That was supposed to be the job of another United player, Owen Hargreaves, but his acute tendinitis problems mean that Capello is working on the basis that Hargreaves will not be available in South Africa.

Carrick has not started a game for England since their humbling at the hands of Spain in February. Yet three months before that he was part of an England team that, despite being virtually entirely B-string players, beat Germany in Berlin. His England career has been a collection of hits and misses. He still only has 19 caps and there were almost four years between his second in 2001 in a friendly against Netherlands and his third in the summer tour of America in 2005.

His first competitive start for England was his shock selection by Sven Goran Eriksson to play holding midfield against Ecuador in the first knock-out round of the 2006 World Cup finals. It was just his luck that Eriksson promptly dropped him for the next game against Portugal. Barry's sore back means that the midfielder might yet be rested for the game in Dnipropetrovsk on Saturday.

Capello seems to have avoided the expected mass withdrawals that looked likely to accompany a dead rubber played in Ukraine in October. The Blackburn goalkeeper Paul Robinson withdrew injured yesterday as well as Manchester City defender Joleon Lescott. They were replaced by Joe Hart and Gary Cahill, the second consecutive squad for which he has been called up late.

Gabriel Agbonlahor is the only significant new call-up to Capello's England squad and he said yesterday that he still believed he could make the cut for the World Cup finals. "It means a lot just to get in front of someone like Darren Bent who has scored seven goals," Agbonlahor said. "It means he [Capello] appreciates what I'm doing at the moment.

"I just have to try to keep it up and stay in the squad. I knew that if I got back to my best I was in with a chance of getting in there. He has given me a chance so hopefully I can reward him if I get a chance to play in either of the games. If the likes of [Wayne] Rooney or Jermain Defoe were to get injured he wants to know who can replace them. Hopefully I will get my chance in the next two games."

With five strikers in the squad it is more likely that Agbonlahor will get his chance against Belarus at Wembley on Wednesday than the Ukraine game which Capello wants to be seen to be treating as a competitive game because of the situation in the group. For those on the fringe, it will be a glorious opportunity.

Outsiders: Five fringe players hoping to impress

Michael Carrick 28 years old. 19 caps

A place in centre midfield is one of the toughest positions to get in this England team. He needs a good performance to make sure he is in Capello's thoughts.

Gabriel Agbonlahor 22, 2 caps

Effective in the win against Germany last November but has not won a cap since then. To lay a claim for a place among the strikers he needs to do something special – or wait until World Cup 2014.

David Beckham 34, 114 caps

No guarantees he will be on that plane to South Africa. This could be the time that Capello starts phasing him out. He will inevitably miss games when he switches from the MLS to Serie A next year.

Carlton Cole 25, 4 caps

Currently the fifth-choice of five strikers which should see him go to South Africa - if Capello takes five and not the usual four. Good performances from Agbonlahor could put him under pressure.

Gary Cahill 23, 0 caps

A late call-up but clearly rated highly by Capello. If the Bolton defender gets a chance and takes it he could force his way into the manager's thinking. There are always opportunities with so many injury prone central defenders.

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