Rooney rested in Hodgson gamble
Manager set to make six changes as England return to scene of infamous Argentina clash bidding for top spot
Published 20/06/2016 | 02:30
Roy Hodgson is set to take a major gamble on England's Euro 2016 aspirations by resting Wayne Rooney for tonight's Group B clash against Slovakia.
England must claim at least a point against the Slovaks to secure qualification for the knockout stages.
But despite the prospect of a clash with Germany or Spain in the next round if England lose in Saint Etienne and finish third in the group, Hodgson is ready to make as many as six changes to the team which started last Thursday's 2-1 win against Wales.
And England captain Rooney is the most high profile name set to miss the Slovakia game, with Hodgson keen to refresh his squad ahead of the knockout stages.
Jordan Henderson and Jack Wilshere will almost certainly replace Rooney and Dele Alli in midfield. Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge will both start, while the other changes will see the full-backs rotated.
The Stade Geoffroy-Guichard is not short on historical significance, and the odd warning of the pitfalls of a wrong move, for England's footballers.
Rooney can recall, without a pause for breath, that he was a 12-year-old, "at my nan's house" when Michael Owen and David Beckham secured iconic status for wildly-differing reasons the last time England played at this venue, when losing a World Cup second round on penalties to Argentina at France '98.
Owen's wonder goal and Beckham's infamous red card, for flicking a leg at Diego Simeone, have been forever etched into the psyche of English football, but as Hodgson contemplates changes to his team, the lessons of that night in Saint Etienne 18 years ago are serving as a reminder of the dangers of failing to finish on top of the qualifying group.
In 1998, England found themselves facing the Argentinians in this industrial corner of France having allowed Romania to pip them to top spot.
And while second place here would see England face the runners-up in Group F in the second round, victory in that fixture would probably lead to a quarter-final against France at the Stade de France.
However, topping the group would open a path to a potential quarter-final against the likes of Portugal or Belgium and Hodgson admits that, with England's progression still to be confirmed, he goes into the Slovakia game wanting to make changes, but wary of leaving himself exposed to the prospect of making a mess of his, and his team's, hopes of success.
"We would like to win the group," Hodgson said. "We want to win the group because it means we'll play against a third-placed team rather than second or first. So our motivation to win is there for all to see.
"Obviously, had we not needed to win this game, I don't think there would be any discussion about making changes.
"But as it is, I have to think a lot more carefully because we have to win the game and I don't want to be accused of not taking the game seriously enough by making changes that people don't understand.
"All the players are capable of coming into this team and helping us win the match, but the dilemma will be which ones I choose and to what extent I keep together a team that has taken four points out of six."
Hodgson's dilemma is rooted in a desire to freshen his team and reward those, such as Vardy and Sturridge, who both scored in the 2-1 victory against Wales in Lens last Thursday after coming off the bench.
Hodgson is also considering a starting role for Jack Wilshere ahead of Alli and giving game time to full-backs Nathaniel Clyne and Ryan Bertrand. But it will the replacement of Rooney with Henderson that will generate the most interest.
Slovakia are not a team to be under-estimated, with Jan Kozak's team defeating Spain during qualification and winning in Germany just last month.
A draw would leave England vulnerable to being overtaken by Wales in the pursuit of top spot, while a defeat could place Hodgson's team in third and facing a second-round clash with Spain or Germany.
"As a team, we certainly think Slovakia are very dangerous going forward," Hodgson said.
"They have a strong front line and, although I didn't want to single him out, Marek Hamsik does need singling out because he is an exceptional player.
"They have people who can really hurt you, but like all teams, sometimes their strength can be a part of their weaknesses.
"I think we go into this game well prepared but we also go into it knowing that we are playing an opponent who, if we aren't careful, could cause us lots of problems and if they do that and we don't get the result we want, we will have made life more difficult for ourselves.
"It wouldn't be a problem if I wanted to keep the same side, but there are players who would like to play and have been knocking on the door to play.
"I have the option because everyone is anxious to show what they want to do. It's a question of what we'd like to do, rather than what is necessary."
Safely negotiating the Slovakia test would ease the pressure on England and, at the same time, Hodgson, whose future has once again been brought into sharp focus by FA chairman Greg Dyke's comments about a run to the semi-finals being the only way to guarantee a new contract.
© Independent News Service.
ENGLAND (probable 4-3-3) - Hart; Clyne, Cahill, Smalling, Bertrand; Wilshere, Dier, Henderson; Sturridge, Vardy, Lallana
SLOVAKIA (probable 4-2-3-1) - Kozácik; Pekarik, Skrtel, Durica, Hubocan; Pecovský, Kucka; Weiss, Hamsik, Duda; Mak.