Time to trust in the young tyros as golden generation gives way


The assembled team have "the right combination of youth and experience" we were told on Friday as the powers that be looked ahead to a brighter 2012 following demoralising defeat last summer. But Ed Miliband's new shadow cabinet has yet to be tested. The England football team, whose captain, John Terry, used almost exactly the same expression a few hours after the Labour leader, have already faced a battle or three and emerged with distinctly mixed results.

Youth for its own sake is of no greater value in football than in politics, however well an occasional schoolboy's speech may go down at party conference. It is one thing to have the teenaged Phil Jones charging down the wing with fresh-faced enthusiasm, but if he does so a minute before half-time and is caught out of position, the whole dynamic of a game can be changed. The way that Friday's in Montenegro did was a useful reminder of the limitations of England's squad, rejuvenated or not.

Jones is bright enough to learn and at this moment would appear to have every chance of playing in the opening game of the European Championship finals in June, probably in his best position of central defence. Injury permitting – never a given for England at summer tournaments – his young Manchester United colleague Chris Smalling will be in contention with him for what had hitherto been regarded as Rio Ferdinand's position, prompting the question of whether three clubmates have ever before been chasing the same place in the England team.

Were Ferdinand to be back in the United side regularly, and desperate to make up for his absence from the South African World Cup, Fabio Capello would find experience and youth in direct opposition. He could face the same quandary at right-back too, where Jones and Smalling – again – may be challenging Tottenham's Kyle Walker and Liverpool's Glen Johnson, who, it is easily forgotten, was first choice until suffering an injury in pre-season. He hopes to return against Manchester Unitedon Saturday.

Johnson's current club deputy, Martin Kelly, is highly regarded and could even come into the mix as well, especially as Capello promised immediately after Friday's game that there will be a new cap or two in next month's friendly against Spain. That will also encourage Chelsea's Daniel Sturridge following his excellent start to the season and should concern Arsenal's Theo Walcott, yet another player facing opposition from inside his own club if Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, scorer of a hat-trick for the Under-21s last Thursday, maintains this month's startling progress.

Then there is Danny Welbeck, who would not yet have been threatening Wayne Rooney's place for club or country under normal circumstances, but now finds himself eyeing the main striker's berth following the latter's dismissal in Podgorica. A three-match ban must be considered unlikely, however, and even if Rooney was unavailable for the first two group games, it would be defeatist not to take him.

Friday's events did offer confirmation that he is best used not as the lone striker, where he becomes frustrated and is too easilyprovoked, but dropping off just behind.Opponents ought really to man-mark him there, but when they do not he is able to exploit the space perfectly, as his passes in the build-up to both England's goals illustrated.

For the second one there should have been a bubble reading "Doh!" above the head of Stefan Savic as the Manchester City defender belatedlyrealised that he had been caught in no-man's-land, not only failing to get to Rooney but leaving his fellow centre-half faced by both Ashley Young, the supplier, and Darren Bent, the scorer.

Bent, assuming he keeps scoring for Aston Villa, would be upset to lose his place, but Welbeck, given some Champions' League experience, ought to be a strong contender. While Rooney is not available to fill the spot behind either of them, Steven Gerrard is the obvious candidate to do so, which would allow Scott Parker and Jack Wilshere to fill defensive midfield roles.

Parker, for all his boyish looks, turns 31 next week, but the one advantage of being passed over by a series of England managers is that he is unencumbered by the baggage of previous failures.

It is therefore quite possible that only Gerrard, Terry and Ashley Cole of the tarnished golden generation would carry that burden into the first game of the finals.

Build-up to Euro 2012: England manager unhappy at prospect of facing Spain

Fabio Capello has said that he would prefer not to play Spain at Wembley next month in the friendly which will be a stringent test of how close England are to challenging for next summer's European Championship.

"I prefer to play against another team," said Capello. "It will be interesting." A formidable Spanish midfield of Busquets, Xavi, Juan Mata and Xavi Alonso helped Spain to a 2-0 win in the Czech Republic on Friday night and Capello made it clear that the Spaniards have only been invited to Wembley because of the contract which saw his side play in Seville in February 2009.

"We need to play," said Capello, who intends to play Phil Jones at centre-half on 12 November and may experiment with strikers who will operate in Wayne Rooney's absence for the finals. "Because we played them away, we need to play Holland [in the new year] and we need to play Spain because it's the return. It's the contract." Portugal may also play England at Wembley four days after Spain.

Ian Herbert

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