England v Chile: Everton midfielder Ross Barkley hungry for chance to reserve his England place in Brazil
If he is unleashed at Wembley, and he delivers, the Everton man will have moved one step closer to a place in Roy Hodgson's World Cup squad
It was only five months ago that Ross Barkley was battling gamely against Chile for the one England team that few want to play for these days: the poor old Under-20s, who have not won in their age-group World Cup for 15 matches going back to 1997. It was no different this summer in Turkey, where they went out at the group stage after two draws and a defeat.
Barkley was the standout player, despite his relative youthfulness. Certainly, Tottenham's Harry Kane worked hard and Tom Thorpe, of Manchester United, at centre-half, put up a fight. But it was Barkley, overlooked for Stuart Pearce's Under-21 European Championship squad, who caught the eye with his surging runs from midfield.
From England's ignominious exit following a defeat to Egypt in their final game on 29 June, after drawing with Iraq and Chile, now Barkley finds himself back with the prospect of facing the South Americans at a much more illustrious level. Sooner or later Roy Hodgson will have to see what the 19-year-old from Everton, capped as a substitute against Moldova in September, can do with more playing time.
The question of selecting Barkley over the next two games is a thorny one for the England manager. The player made an explosive start to the season under Roberto Martinez, having finally been given a run of games under David Moyes at the end of the last campaign. He has been impressive for Everton but has lost his starting place in the last two games to Steven Pienaar, a fact not lost on Hodgson when he named the squad.
Hodgson described that development as "not an advantage at this moment", although he still picked him for the squad. How much faith he is prepared to invest further will be instructive. There is no point in simply having Barkley around the fringes of the team indefinitely. He either gets a chance to prove himself or goes back to the Under-21s, where his chances of regular football will be that much greater.
In the last 24 hours, however, circumstances have changed to an extent that it is conceivable Barkley could start against Chile on Friday at Wembley. Steven Gerrard is out of the game but more pertinently the injury to Daniel Sturridge would permit Hodgson to move Wayne Rooney forward and give Barkley the No 10 role.
It would be some responsibility for such a young player but the chances to see how he responds at this level are limited between now and when Hodgson names his squad for the World Cup. Against Germany, the big boys are likely to be fit and Hodgson will want a greater degree of experience against such an accomplished opponent. After that there is only the Denmark friendly in March before the squad is decided.
Last week Hodgson said Barkley had plenty of scope to prove himself in the Premier League between now and May. "I hope he's going to play between now and the end of the season," he said. "We know him well enough to believe in him. We think this is a very gifted player." Barkley should have a very long England career, but if he is to be on the plane to Brazil the sooner his next chance comes the better.
This time last year, Barkley was on loan at Sheffield Wednesday, one of two spells away from Everton in 2012-13. His development has been breathtaking but inevitably, at his age, it was likely to be difficult to maintain. What he needs is a chance to show whether, at this stage, he can play for England at senior level.
The Football Association has kept Barkley under wraps this week but he spoke to Everton's in-house television channel about his start to the season. Martinez, he said, had encouraged him to play with "a lot of freedom", to be "an all-round player, and to be able to play in lots of different positions."
"It's every youngster's dream to play in the World Cup," Barkley added. "But I'm not really thinking about it at the moment – hopefully, if I play well for Everton I will push into that team and get to Brazil. The gaffer [Martinez] told me [he was in the squad for the qualifiers in September] and I was over the moon. It just shows that hard work pays off.
"The first two days I'd say there were a lot of nerves but then it settled because it felt like I was meant to be there. It's helpful being around different players I'm not used to – being around big-name players – it's good just talking to them and seeing the way they approach games. It bodes well for future games for me.
"It was unfortunate I just missed out on a goal [against Moldova] but it's always good playing for your country. To come on for the seniors was a great feeling and a good moment for my family as well."
If Hodgson does unleash him at Wembley, and he delivers the kind of performance many believe he is capable of, Barkley will have moved one step closer to a place in the squad for Brazil. In interviews he gave earlier in the season, the teenager discussed his life in Liverpool and growing up in a single-parent family where getting to training in the evening required two bus journeys across town.
It was an endearing story and a glimpse into the ordinary childhoods of so many of the English boys who go on to have extraordinary careers. Being as young as he is, Barkley probably does not realise that if he is selected and performs as he can, his life is – once again – about to change dramatically.
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