World Cup 2014: Liverpool defender Glen Johnson hopes to show Cafu swagger in land of attacking full-backs

 

It is probably the most replayed Brazil goal of all time and it came in the 1970 World Cup final. You know the one: Jairzinho comes in from the left and squares the ball to Pele, who waits before delivering the perfect lay-off to Carlos Alberto, surging down the right, who thunders an unstoppable shot into the opposite corner of Italy’s goal. Not a bad finish for a defender, but then we are talking Brazil, home of the attacking full-back, as Glen Johnson well knows.

As a young player, the Liverpool right-back admits he took his lead from another of the great Brazilian full-backs, Cafu, the former Milan defender and the man who lifted the World Cup as the Selecao captain in 2002.

“You love to watch all the attacking players but Cafu, who played in the same position, was probably the best right-back there has ever been,” he said. “It was the way he carried himself – brilliant going forward, good on the ball and could defend very well. He had a bit of swagger.”

It seems a fitting choice of role model for a man who has been highly regarded for his attacking play ever since his emergence at West Ham United at the outset of a career that subsequently took him to Chelsea, Portsmouth and Liverpool. “It’s always been a big part of my game, to attack when I can and get forward and try to cause a few problems for the other side,” he said. “I’ve always liked to get forward and hopefully that will continue in Brazil.”

Johnson was speaking at St George’s Park ahead of England’s friendly tomorrow against Peru at Wembley, their final home fixture before they head to North America to continue their preparation for the World Cup finals. This will be the third major international tournament for the 29-year-old, a player whom Brendan Rodgers, his club manager, described earlier this season as “one of the best full-backs in the world”.

 

The World Cup is the ideal stage to prove that and one factor Johnson hopes to have in his favour is “a bit more freedom” to push forward under England manager Roy Hodgson than he did under Fabio Capello. “Roy encourages the full-backs to get forward and join in. We’ve got to be as dangerous as we possibly can when we have the ball.”

The modern full-back’s importance as an attacking weapon is well-documented but a defensive job is required too. After Liverpool’s implosion at Crystal Palace in the  3-3 draw that effectively ended their Premier League title challenge, Johnson used his Twitter account to respond to critics of their defending, yet he acknowledges that the balance must be right.

“The coaches encourage you to get forward but how and when is your decision because you’re playing the game. Sometimes when you end up on the other side [it is] because certain things have unfolded and you’ve seen more room and are trying to exploit that, but they [the coaches] wouldn’t be encouraging me to run across to the left wing too often.”

Over on England’s left wing, as it happens, are two other impressive attacking full-backs in Leighton Baines and Luke Shaw, the baby of the squad at 18 who “looks to have taken it all in his stride”, according to Johnson.

As one of England’s older guard, Johnson, capped 50 times, is encouraged by what he has seen from all of the “fearless” young players in Hodgson’s party, not least 19-year-old Raheem Sterling, his Liverpool team-mate. “Raheem is a very level-headed lad and he could bring that element of surprise. He’s got that coolness about him and hopefully he can take that to the World Cup.”

There are five Liverpool players in England’s squad overall plus Jon Flanagan on standby, yet it is another of Johnson’s Anfield team-mates, Luis Suarez, occupying perhaps the most prominent position in the pre-finals media bulletins.

Johnson has been in touch with Suarez since his knee operation and reports that the Uruguayan is confident of being fit to face England in their second Group D game on 19 June. “He doesn’t seem to think it’s too bad,” Johnson said. “He thinks he’ll be fit. We’ve been talking by text.”

He admits to mixed feelings about his friend’s availability for the game. “You don’t ever want to see your mates or team-mates injured. But if he was to miss our game and be fit for the next one...” he said, leaving the sentence unfinished. “He’s the sort of player who can create things out of nothing and causes everybody problems [and] he’s clearly not one of the players you want to play against in the World Cup, but I’d rather he be fit than injured.”

Johnson’s own fitness was a concern at the start of the year when he sat out a month of Liverpool matches owing to a combination of ankle and groin problems. “I was playing for two or three months with two or three injuries. They were never serious [but] it was affecting how I played. We called a time-out and said, ‘I’ve got to get fit’.”

On returning he found a rich vein of form and instead it was Kyle Walker, his rival for the England right-back berth, who missed out with injury.

Johnson bristles at the suggestion he would not have been first choice anyway. He will fly out to the World Cup as the squad’s only natural right-back, and he is going to the perfect place to showcase his talents.

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