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IF the World Cup constitutes the greatest stage, then England’s players can consider tonight’s friendly their final audition for a leading role.
Head coach Fabio Capello will use the meeting with Mexico to test the condition and form of a handful of players as he looks to finalise his 23-man squad for South Africa.
The Italian insists he has a good idea of who he will take when England jet out to their tournament base in Rustenburg on 2 June.
But with just a week until he shaves seven names from his 30-man training squad, several issues remain unresolved – until this evening at Wembley, at least.
Capello has decided not to use goalkeeper David James or any of the Chelsea contingent, who all joined the high-altitude camp in Austria late owing to the FA Cup final. That offers him the chance to examine the credentials of some of his fringe players, such as Adam Johnson, Ledley King, Jamie Carragher and James Milner.
Tottenham defender King, having found a way to manage his chronic knee problems, is set to make his first appearance under Capello at the age of 29 and could end up being the Italian’s preferred replacement centre-back. Liverpool stalwart Carragher, tempted out of international retirement after three years, must prove he can still operate at right-back at the highest level.
Aston Villa’s James Milner is already admired but finds himself in with a chance of a starting role in central midfield, especially if Gareth Barry is ruled out of the tournament. Johnson, the young Manchester City winger, is said to have impressed in training, but is by no means sure of his place in the final 23.
Finally, with the No1 jersey still up for grabs and James rested, Joe Hart and Robert Green will have the chance to prove their worth. All will be anxious not to fluff their lines.
Barry braced for World Cup D-Day
MANCHESTER City midfielder Gareth Barry will discover today whether his World Cup dream is still alive.
Barry, an England regular under Fabio Capello, will undergo a make-or-break scan on his injured ankle ligaments. The Manchester City star, 29, will go to South Africa if doctors assure Capello that Barry will be ready to play in England’s opening match against USA on 12 June. Barry has been wearing a protective boot and sleeping in an oxygen tent since suffering the injury earlier this month.
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Arguably the biggest decision left to Capello is who will be his first-choice goalkeeper at the World Cup, and Joe Hart must sense it is there for the taking. An impressive showing this evening from the Manchester City stopper, who fared so well on loan at Birmingham, might just be enough to tip the balance in his favour.
Just a few months ago Jamie Carragher, 32, could not have envisaged being England’s preferred right-back; now he is in with a real chance, due to Glen Johnson’s defensive limitations and a lack of other candidates. First, however, he will have to prove that three years away from the international arena have not blunted his ability.
Ledley King is another whose inclusion in the squad would have been deemed far-fetched this time last year, but such has been his rebirth under Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp that he looks likely to leapfrog West Ham’s Matthew Upson in the centre-back hierarchy. Expected to get his chance alongside Rio Ferdinand tonight.
James Milner has enjoyed his finest season to date, and the all-action midfielder seems almost certain to be part of Cappelo’s final 23. The question is, however, whether he can snatch a starting role on the eve of the tournament. Much depends on Gareth Barry’s fitness, but he may get the chance to state his case against Mexico.