Montenegro v England: Mystery of Manchester City exclusion continues as Joleon Lescott fights for international future
Centre-half cannot be drawn on Mancini fall-out but will get big chance tomorrow
When Joleon Lescott is asked to weigh up his chances of being in the England squad, should they qualify for the World Cup finals next summer, he pauses for a moment and then hedges his bets. “Sitting here now, if you’d asked me that last year then I’d have said: ‘Yeah, pretty good’. But you don’t know. If I can play more regularly at club level then I think I’ll be there.”
Answering questions in a beach front cafe in the town of Riccione, where England have been based before and after Friday’s World Cup qualifier against San Marino, is not really where Lescott expected to be this weekend. He planned to be in Paris with his wife Debbie, taking advantage of an international week when, he thought, his country did not need him.
As it stands, Lescott will be in the side tomorrow night when England face Montenegro in Podgorica in their crucial World Cup qualifier. Eleven days ago he was not even in Roy Hodgson’s 26-man squad for the two qualifiers having, in the words of the manager, played “too little football” for Manchester City. Come the end of Friday’s game in Serravalle he was wearing the captain’s armband for the second time in his international career.
But then Lescott, 30, knows only too well how quickly things can change. Last summer at Euro 2012 he and John Terry started every game together at the heart of Hodgson’s defence. Lescott had just won his first Premier League winners’ medal with City, starting 40 games in all competitions. If he was fit, he played. Now he is pretty much out in the cold.
It has not yet been satisfactorily explained why Roberto Mancini has taken against Lescott to such an extent. The teenage Serb Matija Nastasic has been impressive, but even in Vincent Kompany’s absences the City manager has largely turned to Kolo Touré and Javi Garcia rather than Lescott. Sadly, the new agreement between the Football Association and the clubs that players do not discuss club matters on international duty meant Lescott was unable to offer his view on the situation.
“Towards the end of the season, I’ll address that,” he said. “But for now, I’m fully focused on England and what England need to do.”
He will almost certainly partner Chris Smalling tomorrow night, having played alongside the United man on Friday. Smalling is the only central defender still available to Hodgson from the four he picked in his original squad following the withdrawals of Michael Dawson, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Cahill.
Smalling played under Hodgson at Fulham and is something of a favourite of the England manager but has actually made two fewer starts for United, 15, than Lescott has for City this season. Like Lescott, he too appears to be fourth choice centre-back at his club. But it was Lescott who was initially left out and then called up when Dawson withdrew.
“Of course it is a concern that I haven’t been playing as much I would like, but I have confidence in my own ability,” Lescott said. “Touch wood I haven’t been injured – because I haven’t been playing – so I feel sharp enough to adapt to anything. I am not saying that I am a guaranteed start but I feel sharp and feel fit.
“I don’t think everyone in the squad has played every game since the last squad. If you think about it like that no one can be at their ultimate peak but I feel confident in my ability. Obviously I was not playing as regularly as the other players. Michael and Rio were playing regularly and playing well so I fully understand the reasons for not being in there.
“I don’t think the manager owes me anything special to anyone else ... he said Chris had played in the last game against Brazil and did well. I understood his decision and respected them. Chris has played more for England. That’s the way I look at it. But I’m here now and I’m going to take the opportunity with both hands.”
Lescott says that he still loves getting up for training in the morning and is at the training ground even on days off because he likes to keep ticking over. His fracture with Mancini seemed to come after the manager criticised his defender following the Champions League defeat to Ajax in Amsterdam on 24 October. After that Lescott did not start another game until the visit of his former club Everton at the start of December.
His contract is up in the summer of next year and already there have been suggestions that a player signed for £24m could be allowed to go for a fraction of that fee this summer. If his City career is coming to an end, at least as long as Mancini stays at the club, then there is still plenty at stake for England. He is still young for a central defender.
“The Euros were great and if I never played for England again that will have gone down as the ultimate goal to have played in,” he said. “But to play in the World Cup is everyone’s dream. No disrespect to the Euros but you don’t grow up dreaming of the Euros, you dream of the World Cup. That’s the same for everyone and I’m no different.”
Of course, there are many players on the borders of Hodgson’s squad who are thinking the same and in central defence Hodgson has a lot of players to choose from. If Lescott performs tomorrow night then one expects, especially given Ferdinand’s withdrawal, that Hodgson will feel a certain loyalty towards him. Certainly more than he has enjoyed with Mancini at City.
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