Tuesday 12 December 2017

Hodgson challenges new boy Rashford to knock strikers off their perch

United youngster's inclusion in expanded squad the major talking point as Walcott and Jagielka miss out on Euros

Rashford: Surprise call-up Photo: Tim Goode/PA Wire
Rashford: Surprise call-up Photo: Tim Goode/PA Wire

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Is Marcus Rashford ready?

Roy Hodgson did not tell Marcus Rashford in advance that he was going to be in his 26-man squad because he wanted to "give him a day's relief" from some of the media attention. But there is no doubt that the inclusion of the 18-year-old striker is the biggest single story from yesterday's announcement.

Rashford only made his Manchester United debut on February 25 but since then he has scored seven goals and impressed with his pace, movement and audacity up front. The injury to Danny Welbeck and dropping of Theo Walcott means that this England team is short of a bit of spark up front and it is fair to say that Rashford deserves to be in the group on merit.

The presumption is that Rashford is part of this group for experience and while he may well get a chance in the Australia game - the Turkey game is the day after the FA Cup final - he is the least likely player of the 26 to make the final 23.

Hodgson left the door open for Rashford making the cut, but he will have to perform brilliantly. "There's no reason if he does exceptionally well why Rashford can't knock someone off their perch," he said. "That will be harder than some people expect because the people who've played over the past two years have done a very good job. It won't be easy."

But there are still 12 days until the final 23 is chosen and far stranger things have happened.

The two most obvious question-marks hang over two of England's most dynamic midfielders, Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson. Hodgson almost admitted that the decision to name 26 players, rather than 23, owed to the remaining doubts over the pair.

"When we were thinking how many players we wanted, there was even more uncertainty around Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson than there is today," he explained. "We thought it was better perhaps to add one or two players to the squad."

Henderson returned for Liverpool on Sunday, playing 26 minutes off the bench after more than five weeks out with a knee ligament injury. "I was delighted to see Jordan come back for Sunday's game," Hodgson said.

Wilshere is a more delicate matter. His absence between broken leg and first-team return was more than eight months. After playing for the U-21s he has managed appearances of 6, 66 and 69 minutes in the Premier League. But at the end of a missed season can that be enough? Hodgson clearly thinks so.

"Is he actually fit now? Yes, he is fit. Then I asked if he is the type of player who brings something different to the team, a player we do not have an abundance of? The answer was yes. At top-level competition, in the qualifiers, has he performed? Three man of the matches in a row would answer that one. So to select him in a group of 26 was very easy."

Wilshere is almost certain to start when England face Turkey on Sunday while Henderson, who will be at the Europa League final tomorrow, may have to wait for the Australia game. If either does not make it then Fabian Delph, a surprise name in the 26, will stay in the 23. Otherwise the Manchester City player is likely to be cut. Over the last two years of development England have largely limited themselves to two systems, the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield. The big tactical question as England prepare themselves for France is which Hodgson will prefer for the Russia game just under four weeks away.

This preference may be down to circumstance, as England's options in wide areas are not as strong as they might have been. Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are out, Walcott not selected and Raheem Sterling out of form. Andros Townsend is the only genuine winger and even he will need to perform well in the preparation games if he is to make it into the final 23. He has not played for England since a substitute appearance in October. If Townsend shines, though, the 4-3-3 becomes more attractive, and Danny Drinkwater may have to worry about his place instead.

The three players cut from the 26 are likely to be midfielders and forwards, because Hodgson has only picked seven defenders and is not going to do with any fewer than that. And while he has four full-backs, two from either side, he only has three centre-backs, Gary Cahill, John Stones and Chris Smalling.

Hodgson admitted that it was difficult to break the news to Phil Jagielka, a stalwart at centre-back, that he would not be part of the group. If Cahill, Stones or Smalling are injured in the next 11 days then Jagielka is likely to be drafted in.

The thinking is that Eric Dier, first-choice holding midfielder, can also be fourth-choice centre-back. Dier played there last season and even filled in a few times this year, when Toby Alderweireld was rested during Jan Vertonghen's injury.

Smalling has had a good season for Manchester United, while Cahill and Stones' years have been more mixed. Hodgson did not deny that it was a far cry from the 2006 World Cup squad which included John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell and Jamie Carragher. "We haven't got those resources at our disposal," he admitted.

ENGLAND Squad -Goalkeepers: J Hart (Man City), F Forster (Southampton), T Heaton (Burnley). Defenders: G Cahill (Chelsea), C Smalling (Man United), J Stones (Everton), K Walker (Tottenham Hotspur), R Bertrand (Southampton), D Rose (Tottenham), N Clyne (Liverpool). Midfielders: D Alli (Tottenham), R Barkley (Everton), F Delph (Man City), E Dier (Tottenham), D Drinkwater (Leicester), J Henderson (Liverpool), A Lallana (Liverpool), J Milner (Liverpool), R Sterling (Man City), A Townsend (Newcastle), J Wilshere (Arsenal). Strikers: Wayne Rooney (Man United), H Kane (Tottenham), J Vardy (Leicester), D Sturridge (Liverpool), M Rashford (Man United).

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