England are still harbouring doubts about Scott Parker's fitness for the European Championship and face entering the tournament with only one fully-fit first-choice central midfielder, after Frank Lampard's withdrawal from the squad last night.
Parker will start for Roy Hodgson against Belgium in England's last pre-tournament friendly at Wembley tomorrow and, barring any problems, will be in the XI against France as the side begin their Euro campaign in 10 days' time. But there is a feeling among coaching staff who watched the 31-year-old play against Norway on Saturday that he is some way short of his best and that his mobility is not near the level he displayed for Spurs in November, when he hit a particularly rich vein of form.
Parker has had a race against time to be fit for this tournament, having decided to take a holiday in Dubai straight after the Premier League season finished rather than stay at Spurs for work on an Achilles injury. He missed the last four games of the domestic season and played only 56 minutes in Oslo, with Hodgson's staff testing how much he could manage as he sought to shrug off the injury.
The coaching staff are unanimous in their view that he is not yet right, despite having responded well to an injection and trained fully last week. They believe he faces a battle to be restored to the level he attained last autumn.
Parker's struggle is a further blow to Hodgson, who yesterday heard the news he had deemed inevitable ever since he saw the look on Lampard's face when the Chelsea player pulled up with a thigh injury in training on Wednesday. England, who have called up Liverpool's Jordan Henderson from the standby list, knew that the two- to three-week recovery time for a thigh strain meant that the injury had come too late for Lampard to have a role in Euro 2012.
The Football Association will today approach Uefa for permission to draft Henderson into the squad for Poland and Ukraine. Though the European governing body will want to see Lampard's scans and to be assured that this is a new injury, the FA request is not expected to meet any obstacles.
With Gareth Barry's stomach injury also ruling him out, captain Steven Gerrard is the fittest midfielder at Hodgson's disposal, though even he has been careful to avoid putting undue strain on a back injury that saw him miss the last two games of Liverpool's season.
There has been a clamour for Hodgson to turn to Manchester United's Michael Carrick, and it is understood that the player is now willing to renew his international career and make himself available again, following the exit of Fabio Capello. But the 30-year-old is also aware that Hodgson has standby players ready, so only covets a return to the ranks after the European Championship.
For his part, though, Hodgson has felt that Carrick would need to be assured of a starting berth if asked to make a symbolic return to the national ranks. But that would mean telling Parker and Gerrard that there is only one central midfield position left – which is unviable. It is understood Carrick may be struggling with an Achilles problem of his own, in any case.
Hodgson may instead have to turn to the players who are cover for central midfield: Phil Jones, who has started one game in the centre for England and just seven for Manchester United, James Milner and Henderson. The manager remains phlegmatic about the litany of injuries which threaten to make the tournament very hard for England. He feels that making too much of the sick-list can only have a negative impact.
That said, he rued the loss of Lampard. "It's a huge blow for the team, especially coming after the loss of another senior player in Gareth Barry," the manager said last night. "The fact that the doctor cannot guarantee Frank could take part in any of the group matches means we have to replace him in the central midfield area.
"Apart from it being a huge blow to me and the team, I'm especially disappointed for Frank himself. He has been in very good form and was looking forward to it. He made a huge contribution towards us qualifying for the Euros so it is cruel to be forced out just before the tournament."
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