Michael Owen and David Beckham are sweating on their places in the England squad that Fabio Capello will announce this evening for the forthcoming World Cup qualifying games against Kazakhstan and Belarus. Both could be dependent on the poor form or fitness of others for their inclusion.
Beckham, who has played only 16 minutes in total of the last two matches after losing his place to the new national hero Theo Walcott, is looking more than ever like yesterday's man and his best hope of being named in the 23 is that neither Shaun Wright-Phillips nor Tottenham's self-confident David Bentley have impressed the coaches.
That may well be the case, as Bentley did not get on the pitch at all in the opening victories over Andorra and Croatia and is hardly in prime form. Like Bentley, Owen also faces the problem of playing in a struggling team; Spurs are the only side below Newcastle in the Premier League table. The striker has convinced Capello of his fitness but, for all his 40 international goals, needs to impress the manager's trusty assistant Franco Baldini in today's away game at Everton in order to be selected for the first time this season.
The tarnished golden generation are slowly being eased out. Of the 2006 World Cup squad, Sol Campbell and Jamie Carragher have gone for good and time is against Beckham, already discarded once and then recalled, and his Manchester United contemporary Gary Neville, who are both 33. Peter Crouch has not been picked this season and Aaron Lennon has never appeared in one of Capello's squads.
As ever, however, injuries are piling up with the start of the Champions' League and any more in today's six games will influence selection. Owen Hargreaves, Michael Carrick and possibly Joe Cole will be missing from the midfield, which would offer Aston Villa's Ashley Young a chance after unluckily missing out in the last squad. Steven Gerrard is fit and firing, so Jimmy Bullard is likely to disappear; what will reappear will be the old debate about whether Gerrard and Frank Lampard (who thrived without him alongside Gareth Barry) can play in the same side.
With Walcott as a wide midfielder, which is what he is, there would be room for four strikers in the squad, offering Owen his chance. But Wayne Rooney, if fit, and Emile Heskey would reasonably expect to start the games after performing so well on that extraordinary night in Zagreb.
Not that Capello is giving anything away. Pressed repeatedly about Owen in the Football Association library on Thursday, the nearest he came to enlightenment was a generalisation that the modern striker must do more than simply score goals: "Players who have not played for 89 minutes then score a goal, it is not enough. Goals are very important but not only the goal." No place for Jimmy Greaves, then.
Capello was sympathetic towards his No 1 goalkeeper David James despite the 10 goals he conceded in a week against Manchester City and Chelsea: "I saw the goals and it wasn't down to what James did. I saw Portsmouth against Tottenham and James played well. When the opponents score 10 goals in two games it is impossible for the keeper. Not only are there 10 chances to score goals, but probably 20." Paul Robinson may not be fit, which would allow Chris Kirkland or Scott Carson back as the No 3 keeper behind Robert Green.
The defence picks itself, although John Terry and Ashley Cole have been among those whose fitness is causing Chelsea's manager Luiz Felipe Scolari concern. If Joe Cole is missing for Saturday's home game against Kazakhstan, Lampard, Gerrard and Barry could all be accommodated as a central trio, with Walcott pushing up the right and Rooney to the left of Heskey.
It is interesting that Heskey, once a figure of ridicule, has been in the side for the two victories regarded as England's best in recent seasons, away to Germany (5-1) and Croatia (4-1), as well as terrorising the Russian and Israeli defences a year ago when Steve McClaren (credit where due) recalled him after three years' absence. "He's modern style, big, but with good movement, and fast," Capello said.
The manager's warning for, and about, Walcott was that despite seeing him have another fine game for Arsenal against Porto on Tuesday, it would be unreasonable to expect a performance like his Zagreb effort every England game. "I said after Croatia that everyone would speak about his performance and the people would be waiting for the same performance, but it's not possible. I think we have to wait and treat Walcott like normal players. Sometimes there will be a fantastic performance, other times it will be normal and others not good so I will substitute him." No substitute for Theo, Arsenal supporters will insist; neither Beckham nor their former starlet Bentley.
Capello caused a stir before the Croatia game by suggesting the players were more comfortable playing away from Wembley, but even though there were scattered boos at the end of the last game there (Joe Cole salvaging a 2-2 draw against the Czech Republic with his scrambled goal in added time) the enormous goodwill generated in Zagreb should ensure a return to traditional home support.
"After we lose the first pass, the fans were restless," Capello said. "They didn't help us. But after the Croatia game I hope it will be better." The key against Kazakhstan, as he emphasised, is to score early. If, like Andorra, the opposition still refuse to come out and play, that is up to them. But it would ensure going to Belarus on Wednesday week with nine points from three games.
England squad (probable): James, Green, Carson; Brown, Johnson, Ferdinand, Terry, Lescott, Upson, A Cole, Bridge; Walcott, Beckham (or Bentley), Barry, Gerrard, Lampard, Jenas, Downing, J Cole (or Young); Heskey, Rooney, Defoe, Owen.
So far under Capello...
Wed 6 Feb, Friendly (Wembley): England 2-1 Switzerland (Jenas 40, Wright-Phillips 62)
Wed 26 March, Friendly (Stade de France, Paris): France 1-0 England
Wed 28 May, Friendly (Wembley): England 2-0 USA (Terry 38, Gerrard 59)
Sun 1 June, Friendly (Hasely Crawford Stadium, Port-of-Spain): Trinidad & Tobago 0-3 England (Barry 12, Defoe 15, 49)
Wed 20 Aug, Friendly (Wembley): England 2-2 Czech Republic (Brown 45, J Cole 90+2)
Sat 6 Sept, World Cup qualifier (Olympic Stadium, Barcelona): Andorra 0-2 England (J Cole 48, 55)
Wed 10 Sept, World Cup qualifier (Maksimir Stadium, Zagreb): Croatia 1-4 England (Walcott 26, 59, 82, Rooney 63)
Overall: Won 5, Drawn 1, Lost 1
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