England need to hit fast forward
In the absence of so many of his established stars Fabio Capello should field a young side against Germany, writes Sam Wallace
Someone somewhere at the English Football Association must still have a mobile number for Scott Parker although they can never have thought they would need it again.
Jimmy Bullard could be spotted on the green of the eighth hole of the Grove Hotel's golf course yesterday afternoon noting down the scores of the fourball he was playing in. Chances are, that was Bullard's main task for this England camp.
Parker and Bullard were rounded up yesterday to add some respectability to an England squad that no longer looks anything like the one that Fabio Capello envisaged when he set about picking this squad one week earlier. No Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, Emile Heskey, Joe Cole or Ashley Cole. It is shaping up to be the biggest non-event the FA have taken part in since Steve McClaren threatened to deliver a management masterclass to American football coaches. But at least he had the decency to cancel.
The England players, or what is left of them, were desperately trying to put a brave face on the prospect of tomorrow's game. They talked up the fact that England against Germany was one of the great international fixtures and they tried to play down the pressure from their managers not to take part in what is the most unpopular international friendly of the season. "It's not a meaningless friendly," Carrick said. "Germany versus England at any level is a huge game. We're taking an awful lot of fans across there and we're not taking it lightly." The players might not be taking it lightly, but their clubs certainly are. Rarely have thumbs been bitten in the direction of an England manager with quite so much contempt as they have been in the last three days. So Capello can look at tomorrow's game two ways: he can curse his luck at being blighted with such a selfish, meddling bunch of Premier League managers. What he should do is pick an England team of such refreshing originality that we all sit up and take notice out of sheer curiosity.
This is, at last, the true friendly, the like of which Sven Goran Eriksson once dreamed: the kind of game in which the result has ceased to be meaningful. Eriksson yearned for a time when he could field the most preposterously experimental teams in friendlies and, instead of complaining about the result, the fans would amuse themselves by booing the opposition's national anthem and indulging in the occasional Mexican wave. Instead the English have always demanded that every friendly is contested as ferociously as a heavyweight title fight.
Not this one. Tomorrow is an ideal opportunity to see whether England can prosper with two pacy wingers, in Theo Walcott and Ashley Young. Capello would be understandably reluctant to play both in a more high-stakes game, but Berlin is made for them. For the first time in a while, an England manager has some pace at his disposal so why not see how Gabriel Agbonlahor plays off Peter Crouch in attack? Now, rather than Ukraine in April, is the time to find out if the man from Aston Villa can cut it. Gareth Barry and Michael Carrick in central midfield is just about as conservative a platform upon which to build as he can select, leaving Capello the freedom to experiment with his attacking four. If Heskey is to become an institution in the England team, as it seems he will under Capello, then it makes sense to play his current understudy, Crouch, to maintain the same shape. Capello has the overwhelming faith of the England fans after four straight World Cup qualifier victories – now is the time to cash it in.
The Germans – famous last words – do not look quite as daunting a side as they have in the past. In fact manager Joachim Löw is trying to introduce a new era of young players by leaving out Christoph Metzelder, Michael Ballack and Torsten Frings. Löw has given places to two players from this season's Bundesliga sensations, Hoffenheim, who have emerged as a new force to challenge the established élite in Germany.
Germany certainly appear to be building towards a younger team for 2010 and England should be, too. It is just a pity that Capello did not go further and select Tottenham's Tom Huddlestone ahead of either Parker or Bullard, both of whose late inclusion is the least inspiring of the decisions that the England manager has made over the last three days. So too the call-up for Paul Robinson at the expense of Robert Green who seems to be suffering once again because, for reasons unknown, England goalkeeping coach Ray Clemence is not a fan.
Capello has already had his equivalent of Eriksson's Munich moment; for that 5-1 victory in September 2001, England's current manager has the 4-1 win over Croatia in Zagreb this September. Arsène Wenger has proved in the Carling Cup that putting out a team of promising young players is more likely to beguile an English football crowd than alienate them. By selecting Michael Mancienne, Capello has shown himself as willing to think imaginatively – tomorrow night he should be bold in his selection, safe in the knowledge that for once it won't be him who gets the blame if England lose.
Second best? Possible team to face Germany
Johnson Terry Upson Bridge
(Portsm'th) (Chelsea) (W Ham) (Chelsea)
(Man Utd) (Aston Villa)
(Arsenal) (Aston Villa)
(Portsmouth) (Aston Villa)