England's versatile quartet to replace old rearguard

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Roy Hodgson claims embarrassment of riches especially at centre of defence so there's all to play for in two friendlies before World Cup qualification begins

After the confusion over John Terry's international plans and now Rio Ferdinand's decision to join him in exile, the way forward is clear for the bright young men hoping to follow them as England's centre-back partners.

For some time it has been apparent that the favoured pair in the long term are Manchester United's Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, who, thanks to Sir Alex Ferguson having snaffled them from Blackburn and Fulham respectively, should benefit from regularly playing and training together.

Before that, however, with Smalling still on crutches and Gary Cahill improving all the time at Chelsea, there will be a different partnership in tandem against the Republic of Ireland at Wembley on Wednesday and then against Brazil in Rio on Sunday.

Cahill appears to have become a first choice while Jones, Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott contest the other berth ahead of a disappointed Michael Dawson, who in March was originally picked ahead of Lescott for the last international double-header only to withdraw through injury and find himself left out this time despite being fit.

In the build-up to Wednesday's game the England manager, Roy Hodgson, has spoken of younger players sometimes getting "blocked" behind established seniors. "Now is the opportunity I think, now that Rio and John – who have done a wonderful job for their country over a long period – have stepped back, it's up to these guys to step forward," he said.

"A guy like Phil Jagielka has been doing a good job for a number of years. Michael Dawson, who I haven't taken this time, is another one who could hope to be in the frame. But on this occasion, I'm going to test out the ones I've got with me, knowing full well that they aren't the only four. Let's be clear on that subject, there are other centre-backs who have got England qualities, but for me you can only give people the opportunity and they've got to seize it.

"Certainly Gary Cahill, after coming back from injury, is playing regularly for Chelsea and did extremely well in the Europa League final. I've got to believe if you can step out into a final and play very well against a good Benfica team, you'll be able to pull an England shirt on and be able to play well for them too."

He believes, as Ferguson does, that the versatile Jones will become a regular central defender, while capable of filling in at right-back or in midfield. "I've spoken to Alex and he's said he's a centre-back. He played at Blackburn Rovers as a centre-back and Alex recognised his talent and potential and went out and paid a good sum of money to buy him as a centre-back.

"They are pretty blessed at Manchester United. Apart from Ferdinand and [Nemanja] Vidic, they've had Jonny Evans as well, so it doesn't surprise me in that situation [that] if you've got a player you think is a good player, a good def-ender, if a vacancy arises elsewhere you put him in. I think both Smalling and Jones consider themselves more centre-backs than anything else and if you asked Alex, he would probably agree with that too."

Jagielka is in the same position – in every sense. Having looked better in the middle of the defence than at right-back, he is happy with his international progress five years on from a first cap, despite not having been used at the European Championships.

"The first cap was great, then it was trying not to be a one-cap wonder," he said. "I had the injury to my ankle, which was frustrating, but I'm looking to finish the season strongly in the two friendlies."

With Jack Wilshere out of contention this week because of an operation, Jagielka believes no one, including the captain, Steven Gerrard, has an outfield position guaranteed. "There isn't really anyone who has one really nailed down. Possibly Stevie, but it's a big year for him as well. He's getting that bit older and I see him changing his game for England a bit. He's still got the range of passing, that's still up there with the best. If Stevie does that and doesn't run around as much, with his range of passing that could potentially make us stronger in that position, allowing others to go forward.

"But I wouldn't like to put money on who will be in the starting XI in August. Look at the centre-backs, even the full-backs aren't guaranteed these days, and I look on that as a positive. The squad itself probably doesn't have as many so-called top, top-level players or the one or two we have had in the past, like [David] Beckham, say."

Hodgson is trying to see that as a positive, though he needs a settled side for the key World Cup qualification games next autumn. "We really are spoilt for choice," he insisted, using the left-back berth currently contested by Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines as an example. "Quite often when we put our squad together we think about guys like [Ryan] Bertrand, [Kieran] Gibbs, we certainly think about [Danny] Rose and [Luke] Shaw. It's amazing how many players out there you would be perfectly happy to have in your squad, but unfortunately that is a little bit blocked by other players."

All the more reason for those given the opportunity against Ireland and Brazil to make the most of it.

England's fab four

Phil Jagielka

Age: 30

Caps: 16 (W11, D3, L2)

Win record: 69%

Debut: 1 June 2008, age 25

Trinidad & Tobago 0 England 3 (friendly, Port of Spain)

Goals scored: 1 (+ 1 own goal)

Goals conceded while on pitch: 9

Yellow/red cards: none

Clean sheets: 9 (56%)

Squads called up for: 34

Phil Jones

Age: 21

Caps: 5 (W3, D1, L1)

Win record: 60%

Debut: 7 Oct 2011, age 19

Montenegro 2 England 2 (Euro 2012 qualifer, Podgorica)

Goals scored: 0

Goals conceded while on pitch: 3

Yellow/red cards: none

Clean sheets: 3 (60%)

Squads called up for: 14

Gary Cahill

Age: 27

Caps: 13 (W9, D2, L2)

Win record: 69%

Debut: 3 Sept 2010, age 24

England 4 Bulgaria 0 (Euro 2012 qualifer, Wembley)

Goals scored: 2

Goals conceded while on pitch: 12

Yellow/red cards: none

Clean sheets: 7 (53%)

Squads called up for: 38

Chris Smalling

Age: 23

Caps: 6 (W4, D1, L1)

Win record: 75%

Debut: 2 Sept 2011, age 21

Bulgaria 0 England 3 (Euro 2012 qualifer, Sofia)

Goals scored: 0

Goals conceded while on pitch: 4

Yellow/red cards: none

Clean sheets: 3 (50%)

Squads called up for: 7

England v Republic of Ireland is on ITV on Wednesday, kick-off 8pm

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