Saturday 25 November 2017

Lambert call exposes England lack of depth

Rickie Lambert all alone with his thoughts during training for restaurant
Rickie Lambert all alone with his thoughts during training for restaurant

Tim Rich

As the debate over the lack of quality available to England managers swirled around him, Roy Hodgson put his faith in a 31-year-old centre-forward who has played only two seasons in the top two divisions.

Hodgson's decision to name his starting line-up before England face Moldova tonight was a bold and confident one.

However, with Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney both injured, the choice of Rickie Lambert as England's central striker emphasised the dearth of talent available to him.

Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott will play either side of Lambert at Wembley. Jermain Defoe is available, but not fully fit and Hodgson pointed out that he has not started a single game this season for Tottenham – a club that has spent more than £100m in the summer on non-English recruits.

Hodgson added that Sturridge, who in the absence of Luis Suarez has scored in every Premier League game for Liverpool this season, was unlikely to be fit to play in what should be a pivotal fixture against Ukraine next Tuesday.

Worsened

Steven Gerrard, his captain for club and country, confirmed that Sturridge had begun last Sunday's game against Manchester United carrying a thigh injury, which has since worsened.

"It would be wrong if I didn't admit the loss of Rooney and Sturridge is a major blow," Hodgson said.

"Even before the weekend those two were very much in my mind. But this is an opportunity for the man who has been sitting back trying to take their place, a chance to get the shirt and shine. It is a chance for Kyle Walker (who will also start) and Lambert to make it clear they should be there, they deserve to be there and they have the quality to be there."

Lambert was playing for Rochdale in the bottom tier of English football in 2006 when the so-called 'golden generation' was being heavily backed to win the World Cup in Germany, but he scored 15 Premier League goals for Southampton last season and found the net with his first touch as an international in the 3-2 win over Scotland at Wembley last month.

He is the first Southampton player to start a competitive game for England since James Beattie a decade ago. However, since Beattie was chosen to face Liechtenstein in a European Championship qualifier at Old Trafford, the quality of the competition was even more dubious than Moldova, who have not beaten anyone other than San Marino in a serious fixture for three years.

Nevertheless, what would concern Defoe is that Hodgson chose Lambert, not just because the Tottenham forward was carrying an injury but because Lambert is a regular starter for his club.

"It is partly the fact that Lambert turned up fully fit and partly because he has played three matches," is how the manager explained his choice. "It was a straight choice between Lambert and Defoe. Jermain hasn't played for Spurs and came here with a slight injury."

Off the pitch, Hodgson allowed his players a visit from their wives, girlfriends and family, who were permitted to stay the night at England's pre-match base, the Grove Hotel in Hertfordshire.

In stark contrast to his predecessor, Fabio Capello, who operated a no-WAGs policy, Hodgson was comfortable with the arrangement, even on the eve of a World Cup qualifier.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill does not believe that Cristiano Ronaldo will be out to prove a point when he makes his first appearance since Gareth Bale's arrival at Real Madrid when he lines out for Portugal at Windsor Park tonight.

Asked if Bale's signing created extra pressure on Ronaldo, O'Neill said: "I would doubt that extremely. He regards himself as the best player in the world and tries he prove that every time he goes on the pitch.

"It's not just a case of can we get someone to stifle him in a particular area of the pitch because he will just come to another area to get the ball."

O'Neill's side have previous form against Portugal, claiming a surprise 1-1 draw in Porto in the reverse fixture last October. That night was supposed to be a celebration of Ronaldo's 100th cap, but the party fell flat when Niall McGinn's goal ensured the unfancied visitors left with a point. A similar result in Belfast would suit the hosts and O'Neill was unapologetic about the kind of game his team will have to produce to get it.

"We don't want it to be a beautiful game of football if I'm 100pc honest," he said. (© Independent News Service)

England v Moldova,

Live, UTV, 8.0

Northern Ireland v Portugal

Live, Sky Sports 4, 7.45

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