Roy Hodgson knows his choices risk ire of club managers
Manager has to put England first as he prepares to hand out up to five debuts
The good news is that at the £260m Friends Arena in Stockholm last night, the roof was already shut and, unlike in Warsaw last month, there is no chance of rain stopping play when England face Sweden tonight.
Around the new national stadium, a Swedish football federation project nine years in the making with public and private partners, there is still much building work to be done. Workmen were still finishing jobs yesterday afternoon and alongside the stadium the giant "Mall of Scandinavia" is still basically a big hole in the ground.
A work in progress, the Swedes admit but they are delighted to have the England team in town to open their new stadium officially. A work in progress is how one might describe Hodgson's team tonight, built from a squad that has already suffered five withdrawals and could, tonight, see as many as five debuts if Wilfried Zaha and Carl Jenkinson make second-half substitutes' appearances to go with debutants Raheem Sterling, Steven Caulker and Leon Osman who will all start.
To beat that, you have to go back to the infamous friendly defeat to Australia at Upton Park in February 2003 when Sven Goran Eriksson gave six players their debuts, including Wayne Rooney, on a night when he made 11 substitutions. Hodgson will be permitted to make just six by Fifa and whoever plays the full 90 minutes will inevitably lead to criticism from some quarters.
The England manager admitted as much yesterday. "I risk those managers being a bit unhappy that their players have played the full 90 and someone else's have played 45 or 60," he said. "But there's not much I can do about that. It's a bona fide international fixture." He knows that come February next year his team will embark on a series of crucial, high-profile games that will go a long way to defining the future of this World Cup qualification campaign. First up, a friendly in February against Brazil, hosts and potential favourites for the World Cup finals the following year.
Then comes the fifth World Cup qualifier against San Marino and after that a huge game against Montenegro, potentially England's biggest threat in Group H. Tonight will be about Steven Gerrard's 100 caps, Sterling's debut at 17 and Osman's at the ripe old age of 31 but it is also another vital opportunity for Hodgson to check his options ahead of a pivotal few months next year.
The England manager is a man who does not disguise his true feelings on a subject and when he felt yesterday that he was being put under pressure to acquiesce to the demands of the Premier League's big clubs he pointed out the restrictions he works under.
"I can go to Premier League matches at the weekend now and quite frankly there won't be an English player on the field," he said. "If there is it might be someone who is at the latter end of his career or very, very young which none of you would ever dream of expecting me to pick for the England team."
He was forthright on the subject of Zaha and his refusal to be kept hanging on while the young Crystal Palace striker decides where his loyalties lie. It is the prerogative of a manager to make sure that he is not seen to treat one individual differently, hence Hodgson's demand that Zaha show gratitude at his call-up. However, the issue of dual-nationality is sure to be ever more complex over the next two decades as the children of a new generation of British immigrants make up their minds on their international loyalties.
It is more simple in the case of Osman who is England's 11th oldest post-war debutant at 31 years and 181 days. He is the joint second oldest debutant since 1954 behind Kevin Davies (33 years and 201 days) and exactly the same age as Steve Bould when he won the first of his two caps against Greece in May 1994. Unlike Sterling and Zaha, this could be Osman's one and only chance.
"For many a year now, he [Osman] has been one of those Everton players who has been one of the unsung heroes at a very good football club," Hodgson said. "It's nice to have him in the squad. He is a very energetic player. I was told he is 31 which surprises me. I thought he plays like a much younger man so let's hope he continues to play like a much younger man and I won't have to worry about his birth certificate."
As for Caulker, he appears to have got his chance by virtue of his performances for the Under-21s. Whether or not Zaha gets a chance could depend on how certain first-choice players respond tonight although with Danny Welbeck, Ashley Young and Sterling in attack, one would imagine that Daniel Sturridge will get the nod from the bench ahead of Zaha.
Hodgson said yesterday that he regarded Zaha as a potential signing during his time in charge of West Bromwich. "He's very direct, very pacey and skilful with the ball. He has an eye for goal. These are the sort of qualities that we think we need in our front group of players." Already Zaha is out of the reach of West Bromwich. A debut and a good performance tonight and he might find himself edging into Hodgson's plans for the spring.
England team to start
England (4-3-3): Hart, Johnson, Cahill, Caulker, Baines; Gerrard, Cleverley, Osman; Welbeck, Young, Sterling
Stockholm report: Key issues Roy will be keeping an eye on
The agreement with Arsenal means that he will not start the match, but for the first time Hodgson gets to see the 20-year-old midfielder in action.
John Ruddy has already been capped but Fraser Forster is yet to get play for England. Joe Hart starts tonight but this friendly would be a good opportunity to cap the Celtic keeper.
Liverpool forward makes his debut and with Walcott, Lennon and Oxlade-Chamberlain absent, this is his chance.
England managers tend to find a formation and stick to it. While Hodgson has largely settled upon a 4-2-3-1 variation, his system looks more like a 4-3-3.
The two most recent caps from the Championship (David Nugent and Jay Bothroyd) were stop-gaps rather than hopes for the future. Zaha is different.
Kick-off 7.30pm, Friends Arena, Stockholm.
TV ITV 1.
Referee S O Moen (Norway).
Odds Sweden 6-4. Draw 9-4. England 9-5.
England's international record against Sweden England wins 8. Draws 9. Sweden wins 6. England have lost one of their last seven matches against Sweden, 1-0 in an away friendly in 2004.
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