England dogged by defence dilemmas ahead of crucial World Cup qualifiers

Roy Hodgson now has four centre-halves with little international experience to select from. That should not matter against San Marino but will in Montenegro

It was a familiar medical bulletin that Roy Hodgson woke up to this morning: another day, another one of his centre-backs withdrawn through injury ahead of two crucial World Cup qualifiers in the next six days.

To lose one is bad enough, but for three to pull out over the course of three days is starting to give Hodgson's squad a patched-up look to it before they even board the plane for Italy and their first assignment against San Marino on Friday. First Michael Dawson, then Rio Ferdinand and now Gary Cahill, the man who was once England's go-to guy when they needed a willing late call-up, was added to the list of casualties.

The extent of Cahill's knee injury was not clear but having sustained it against West Ham on Sunday he did go on to finish the game. The 27-year-old is from the old school, a tough defender who was rushed back from injury to play the Champions League final in May. It was hard to escape the feeling that Chelsea, having seen Ferdinand withdrawn, decided that they too should be keeping one eye on their own fixture logjam and that FA Cup quarter-final replay against Manchester United in particular.

Which leaves Hodgson approaching two World Cup qualifiers that will ask different questions of his squad. Against San Marino, his two central defenders will face one of the least demanding 90 minutes of their career. In Podgorica on Tuesday night when they take on Montenegro, he will expect a much more rigorous examination from two strikers, Stefan Jovetic and Mirko Vucinic, who are in form and playing in teams in the top four of Serie A.

The four centre-halves at Hodgson's disposal – Joleon Lescott, Chris Smalling, Steven Caulker and Steven Taylor – are all experienced Premier League defenders. At international level they have made 15 starts in competitive games between them, 13 by Lescott, two by Smalling and none for either of the other two. Against San Marino that is not an issue, but the Montenegro game is more of a concern.

Of course, Hodgson should be able to count on a combination from the Premier League's two leading sides to see him through even if neither are regulars for Manchester City and Manchester United. But playing Lescott with Smalling is yet another central defensive variation in a Hodgson regime that, Euro 2012 aside, has been unable to select a regular pairing in the centre of defence.

Whatever defensive partnership Hodgson settles upon for the two qualifiers, it will be the seventh new pairing of his time in charge of England which comprises just 13 games. John Terry and Joleon Lescott have played together for five of those 13 matches but that partnership will never be reprised now Terry has withdrawn his services. In the seven games since Euro 2012, Hodgson has not been able to play the same two central defenders in consecutive games.

There is understood to be some consideration given to playing Michael Carrick as a central defender against San Marino to try him out with the Montenegro match in mind. Carrick played there for United against Everton in August and that the notion is even being raised shows that Hodgson is uncertain about his options in that position.

International football, with its injuries and its constant withdrawals, can never be any more than a snapshot of a country's resources at any one time. Against Brazil last month Hodgson began by selecting from a pool of players largely undiminished by injury and subsequently suffered only three withdrawals. This time he has been forced to chop and change.

Speaking today, Frank Lampard, who has seen a few injury crises in his time said that England had enough strength in their squad to get them through. "At moments like this when people talk about crises in certain areas of the team I think it is quite good for the whole squad to focus more on the games in hand."

It is just that in the broad history of the England team, the build-up to matches can give clues to the performance. While no one expects San Marino to be any more than a formality, the test in Montenegro looms ever larger the more England are diminished by injuries. The last time the national team played a double-header away from home was six years ago encompassing a turgid 0-0 draw against Israel in Tel Aviv and that laboured 3-0 win against Andorra in Barcelona in the doomed Euro 2008 qualification campaign.

No one would wish to draw comparisons yet with the painful last year of the Steve McClaren regime, but he is an England manager who knows better than most the damage that a rush of injuries to players of a certain position can inflict. Under him, England went into that crucial last game against Croatia in November 2007 with Peter Crouch their only fit striker.

Watching the video analysis of San Marino's strikers – if such a thing exists – will not cause the England camp too many concerns. When they move on to the clips of Jovetic, sixth in the Serie A scoring charts with 12 goals for Fiorentina this season, it may focus minds a little more. He is not the kind of player you wish to face with an unfamiliar defence, not with so much at stake.

Centre back pairings

Roy Hodgson's choices so far:

Norway (a) Jagielka/Lescott

Belgium (h) Cahill/Terry

France (n) Lescott/Terry

Sweden (n) Lescott/Terry

Ukraine (n) Lescott/Terry

Italy (n) Lescott/Terry

Italy (a) Cahill/Jagielka

Moldova (a) Lescott/Terry

Ukraine (h) Lescott/Jagielka

San Marino (h) Cahill/Jagielka

Poland (a) Jagielka/Lescott

Sweden (a) Cahill/Caulker

Brazil (h) Cahill/Smalling

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