Hodgson looks to Gerrard-Wilshere pairing for ballast
As a way of kicking off a 150th anniversary year, the English FA has certainly picked the opponents to bring a sense of occasion. Further down the line, a second game against Brazil has been lined up at the Maracana. Scotland and the Republic of Ireland are scheduled to visit Wembley. Germany and Argentina will be guests in November if England can qualify for the World Cup without having to negotiate a way through the play-offs.
For now, however, the final arrangements are on hold, as might be expected when England are two points behind Montenegro in a qualifying group where only one team goes through automatically.
What is very clear is that the allure of Brazil still holds strong and that Roy Hodgson’s (right) players are taking it far more seriously than they usually would for a friendly that cuts into this stage of the season.
Winning 100th cap
The focus of attention will inevitably be on Ashley Cole – “if you’re an England fan and don’t respect and love him for what he’s done, that’s your problem,” Hodgson said of a player winning his 100th cap – but in another respect the England manager knows what to expect from his left-back whereas there are other areas of that might be occupying more of his thoughts.
Hodgson will be eager, for example, to see Joe Hart reassert his authority after his uncharacteristic performance in Stockholm and will also be looking for an encouraging display from Joleon Lescott after a patchy few months for the Manchester City defender.
Ashley Young’s absence through injury also leaves a space that Theo Walcott will almost certainly fill, either as an orthodox winger or drifting into the centre to be alongside Wayne Rooney.
More than anything, however, Hodgson will want to see confirmation that Steven Gerrard and Jack Wilshere can become the new fulcrum of his team. This will be the first time they have started together and it is certainly an enticing prospect, not just because of the qualities they have in common but also their differences.
One can hold, the other can push on, and vice versa. One can pick a pass of any distance with his right foot. The other has a left foot that can open up the best defences in the business. There is the experience of Gerrard, at 32, and the dynamism of Wilshere, 11 years younger.
Hodgson was emboldened enough to say that England’s other options in central midfield, naming Michael Carrick, Frank Lampard and Tom Cleverley, meant they were now as well equipped in that department as any other football nation. We have heard all that before, of course, and it has never materialised that way – Spain, anyone? – but there is at least reason to be encouraged. After all the years of trying to get the Gerrard-Lampard axis to work, it may be that England now have a snug fit.
Hodgson also made it clear that he would not use Rooney or Daniel Welbeck for the entire match, with Manchester United’s Champions League tie against Real Madrid next week.
Expect Hodgson to make the most of being able to use half a dozen substitutes. England’s manager, nonetheless, should not bend too far when there are clear benefits to him of playing his strongest team – and going for a morale-boosting win.