Jack Wilshere: The heir to Steven Gerrard's England throne
England captain full of praise for the 'frightening' prospect that is the Arsenal midfielder, who is set to play alongside him at Wembley – but tells young Gunner that he's not world-class yet
Asked whether Jack Wilshere might just be a younger version of himself, Steven Gerrard, in one of his more mischievous moods, said that there was one comparison that had to be dismissed straight away. "I'm better looking than him," Gerrard said. "As players? We're different."
Against Brazil, for the first time, they start alongside each other at the heart of the England midfield. For Gerrard, this year marks the final road of qualification for what he envisages will be the fifth and final tournament of his career. For Wilshere, having missed Euro 2012 through injury, he hopes that the 2014 World Cup will be the launch pad for his England career.
It is remarkable that injuries to the two players over the last two seasons have meant that Gerrard and Wilshere have spent just 13 minutes together on the pitch for England. That came in the friendly defeat to Sweden in Stockholm three months ago, when Wilshere came on as a second-half substitute before Gerrard was himself substituted.
Wilshere's first-ever start for Arsenal in the Premier League, the first game of his breakthrough 2010-2011 season, was against Liverpool at Anfield. A 1-1 draw, it was obvious on that sunny day on Merseyside that Gerrard had heard about the reputation of his young opponent and was determined to assert himself. Wilshere, for his part, did not back down.
That game was two and a half years ago, and only really now can we see how the two of them will combine in an English midfield. There will be few more difficult tests than against the country that has won five World Cups but Wilshere has held his own in the past against the likes of Xavi, and Gerrard is, well, Gerrard. Having decided not to step down after Euro 2012, at 32 he is still being voted England's best player and still capable of scoring crucial goals, as Sunday's game at the Etihad Stadium demonstrated.
The older Gerrard gets, the less prepared he is to mince his words when it comes to England and English players. Having listened to his manager Roy Hodgson describe him and Ashley Cole as having enjoyed careers that stood up to the definition of "world-class", the England captain delivered his own thoughts on England's next generation.
Gerrard said: "I think it's vital we don't all put too much pressure on him [Wilshere], and there's not too much expectation. One man can't carry a nation on his own. He needs other players to help. I can only tell him to try and keep his feet on the ground and try and enjoy it. His career will be full of ups and downs, and I think he has the mentality to handle it.
"These players, these young players with huge potential, they have to go out and prove it in big games in the Premier League, Champions League and international level, that they're good enough to compete against other world-class players. Maybe, if they do, the tag world-class can be given out. But I don't like it being given out to young players."
Gerrard did later add that Wilshere's scope to improve, and the kind of player he could become was "a scary thought" but the message was pretty clear from the England captain. You do not allow yourself to be thought of as one of the best in the world until you have proved you are capable of doing it over a long time at the highest level. Simply being the best in an increasingly shallow pool of English talent is not enough.
Against the likes of Neymar and Oscar, Wilshere will get to see how he measures up against those who are currently the very best of his generation. Neymar is little more than a month younger than Wilshere and Oscar, the Chelsea playmaker, is the most senior of the three by less than two months. These are the players whom both countries hope will have a major effect at the next World Cup.
It is a pivotal year for Hodgson too, who must first qualify for the 2014 World Cup finals. The Brazil game is the first of 10 planned so far for 2013, including the remaining six qualifiers and friendlies against Republic of Ireland, another against Brazil in Rio de Janeiro in June and then Scotland in August. There could, of course, be a two-legged qualification play-off in November, but Hodgson will hope England are home and dry by then and able to play another high-profile friendly.
The England manager has selected 44 different players since he took over last May, and there were six debutants against Sweden alone in November, but now the anticipation is that he will build a stable team to see England through to Brazil next summer. He conceded that, even in his long career, this was perhaps the most challenging year of all.
"Maybe. I can't think in those terms. There have been quite a few years [in management], most of the 38, where I think success or failure this year will have an effect on the way I'm viewed. But the only thing you can do is make certain you take your job seriously, do the best job you can, the team is well prepared and you hope you'll get the results. If you do, you hope you'll be highly regarded."
There will be pressure on this group of Brazil players going into a home World Cup next year and with their country not having lost to England in 23 years they will not wish to drop the baton. Brazil's place at 2014 is assured. For England, qualification is achievable but by no means certain, and the hard work starts here.
tale of tape old and new
Kick-off 7.30pm, Wembley Stadium
TV ITV 1 Referee P Proenca (Portugal)
Odds England 11-5. Draw 2-1. Brazil 11-8.
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