Aston Villa's Gabriel Agbonlahor is due to receive a boost ahead of tomorrow's Premier League game at home to Manchester City with a summons this evening to join England's squad for the forthcoming World Cup matches away to Ukraine next Saturday and at home to Belarus on Wednesday week.
A run of five goals in as many games, together with Agbonlahor's versatility, has edged him ahead of the other contender, Sunderland's in-form Darren Bent.
Agbonlahor has never played in a competitive international, which is what the manager Fabio Capello insists these two games are, despite England having qualified for South Africa. After starting two friendlies last winter, against Germany and Spain, Agbonlahor reverted to the Under-21 squad.
Capello likes his pace and goalscoring potential, as well as his ability to play either through the middle or wide on either flank. The England camp just wish that at Villa he was partnering Emile Heskey instead of the latter's Norwegian rival, John Carew. Heskey has been a substitute for most of the season and needs to establish himself if he is to remain first choice for the national team as the target-man playing just in front of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard.
Speaking on Friday at Wembley – where yet another pitch was being laid down following last weekend's Coldplay concert – Capello appeared briefly to suggest that Heskey could be made an exception to his rule that players must be appearing regularly for their club side. "He will be fresh for the World Cup!" the manager laughed, before reverting to his more characteristically sober demeanour to make clear to the Villa man: "He has to play [club football]."
The same point was made, yet again, in relation to Manchester United's Michael Owen, whom Capello made a special trip to see against Wolfsburg in the Champions' League last Wednesday, only for the striker to limp off after barely 20 minutes. Ledley King, he made clear, falls into the same category, the point in his case being that his knee has to be able to stand up to more than one game in a week at a World Cup, which it cannot.
The start of the competition on 11 June may seem a good way away, but there are only four games left, including friendlies in November and March, before a provisional squad has to be named. That offers little opportunity for new names like Bolton's Gary Cahill to appear in the frame. Some older ones will be present at the game against Belarus, when every player who appeared in any World Cup squad during the qualifying campaign is to be invited as a gesture of thanks. The Wembley crowd will therefore be asked to show their appreciation to the likes of David Bentley, Jimmy Bullard and Scott Carson as well as Jermaine Jenas, Stewart Downing and Theo Walcott.
None of those can expect to be among the 24 selected this evening as Capello experiences the most hectic weekend of his handsomely-paid stewardship. Yesterday he rushed from Tottenham's game at Bolton to see Manchester United play Sunderland and today he takes in the matches at Arsenal and then Chelsea before visiting Villa Park tomorrow. That should enable him to cover just about the whole squad in person, except for the West Ham United pair Robert Green and Carlton Cole, plus David Beckham, whose fitness he was checking yesterday.
One other player he will not see is the goalkeeper David James, who as well as worrying about the financial mayhem at Portsmouth will be concerned about whether he wins back a place for the first time this season now that he is fully fit. James would have liked a less equivocal response than the one Capello gave when asked about him on Friday: "Ray Clemence is following him always. I went to Portsmouth to check. I have to decide. I [also] went to check [Joe] Hart."
Possible squad Green, Foster, Robinson; Johnson, Brown or Upson, A Cole, Bridge; Terry, Ferdinand, Lescott; Beckham, Wright-Phillips, Lennon, Milner, Young; Barry, Carrick, Lampard, Gerrard; Rooney, Heskey, Crouch, Defoe or C Cole, Agbonlahor.