When you recall that the last two games England played were wins over the world champions Spain and Sweden, a country the national team had not beaten in 43 years, the stakes creep that bit higher for Stuart Pearce tomorrow. Especially when he peruses his squad list over breakfast this morning and considers who is missing.
The withdrawal of Kyle Walker yesterday took to four the number of dropouts from Pearce's squad which, among other things, leaves him with just three strikers who have four caps and 82 minutes on the pitch for England between them. At some point today, the novelty of managing England will gradually start to erode, replaced by the reality that the team ranked third in the world are coming to Wembley tomorrow to face a team missing many of their senior players.
Much of that is Pearce's choice, given his decision to leave out the likes of Frank Lampard, Joleon Lescott, Rio Ferdinand, Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe and Michael Carrick, which increasingly is looking like something of a gamble. Even yesterday he did not opt to call up a replacement for any of the four withdrawals, who include Wayne Rooney and Darren Bent, now out for the rest of the season.
The February/March friendly is arguably the hardest of the lot. It often falls three days after the Carling Cup final, which guarantees, at the very least, a few of the senior players will have been in action on the Sunday. The squad cannot meet until that Sunday night at the earliest and anyone who has played that day usually has to be rested from training on the Monday. James Milner said that only 12 of the squad had participated in the full session yesterday.
It comes down to today's session at Wembley this morning for Pearce, during which he will have to tell his squad how he wants them to play and begin to make his mind up about who will be in the team and who will be the captain. That is, provided he makes those two decisions today. There is a suggestion that Pearce could delay naming the captain until tomorrow, which would be interesting, if unconventional.
Pearce has not always been characterised in the kindest fashion. In the seminal 2001 film Mike Bassett: England manager, a satire on the Football Association which grows more prescient with every viewing, the character of Gary Wackett seems to draw upon elements of Pearce's personality as its inspiration. Wackett's aggression intimidates even his own team-mates. Tomorrow Pearce will be keen to leave the "Psycho" and Wackett comparisons behind.
Milner knows Pearce as well as any player in the current squad, having played for him in two European Championships at Under-21 level. "We should have done better and won at least one," Milner said, recalling those times yesterday. "As a manager he knows when to kick you up the arse and knows when to put an arm around you. Playing for someone who has that record is great. He has been there and done it."
Tomorrow, however, Pearce is up against Bert van Marwijk, the arch-pragmatist who ignored decades of Dutch football culture in his approach to the 2010 World Cup final and very nearly took Spain to penalties. This is the kind of game where, if it goes wrong, it could go spectacularly wrong against a Dutch team that is likely to include Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt.
The issue for England is that they are without Rooney for the first two games of Euro 2012, and now Darren Bent too for the whole tournament. Four months from Euro 2012 they need to start exploring their options, yet Pearce is limited tomorrow. He has only Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck and Fraizer Campbell to choose from as specialist strikers, all of whom are woefully inexperienced at international level. Crouch, with 22 goals for England, continues to be ignored.
In defence, Pearce is similarly restricted with only three recognised centre-halves in Phil Jones, Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling. Between them they have just 12 caps, although in Cahill's favour he is now generally recognised as John Terry's partner in the centre of the England back four, having done the job against Sweden and, before that, Bulgaria and Montenegro.
The final conundrum for Pearce to solve is where best to deploy Steven Gerrard, or even whether to start with him at all. The Liverpool captain last played for England in November 2010, a dim and distant time when Andy Carroll was still at Newcastle United and Jordan Henderson was regarded as the coming man of English football. Gerrard has missed 10 internationals since and now – almost 12 years on from his England debut – there is still no firm idea of where best to play him for his country.
When Gerrard last played for England, in the defeat to France, he was being deployed behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Also, at that time, Scott Parker was just the humble West Ham captain and had not yet been voted the Football Writers' Association player of the year and, as of yesterday, the England supporters' player of the year. How best to enable those two to combine effectively?
These are the big questions that Pearce will be expected to answer for his one audition in front of the Club England board. One full training session over the course of three days is not much time at all to prepare for that kind of examination. Yet, if it does prove impossible for the FA to persuade Harry Redknapp to take over the team at the end of the season, Pearce will be in pole position to do the job for Euro 2012.
The caretaker manager will know that one decent performance tomorrow and he will take the edge off the doubt that the FA, and most of the country, have about his credentials to manage the team for longer than one game. His decision not to call up replacements was evidently made because he did not want the new boys to come to the party with the attitude that they were second-choice – a bold move, given the withdrawals.
When Pearce calls together his squad before training at Wembley today he will look around and see a few big names – Gerrard, Walcott, Ashley Cole, Gareth Barry and Joe Hart among them – but he will also recognise that a lot are missing. It is not uncommon for friendlies at this time of the year, but it does not make life easy for a manager who has one game to make an impression.
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