World cup carrot has stars champing at the bit
AS the number of days before it begins ticks down into double figures and the remaining games for the players drop into singles, everything that happens from now until June will be framed in the context of the World Cup.
In any other time during the last three years and nine months, Theo Walcott, as he did on Saturday, skipping around players who should be playing in the Championship and scoring a goal would not merit much attention.
Instead, a strike at home to Burnley in early March means, for some, Walcott has "answered some of his critics" or "boosted his World Cup prospects" after a less than stellar showing against Egypt last week.
If a goal against Burnley was really a boost to everybody's World Cup chances, the likes of David Dunn and James Vaughan should be banging on Fabio Capello's door after they also scored two of the 60 goals which Burnley have conceded in their 28 league games.
Walcott's case is typical of those players who find themselves on the fringes of a World Cup squad and over the next few weeks, any bit of quality shown by players like Bobby Zamora, Shaun Wright-Phillips or Carlton Cole will be enough to have their names mentioned among those who have 'booked their tickets to South Africa'.
Arsene Wenger felt the criticism of Walcott had been excessive after his struggles at Wembley, but by playing him for the entire game, albeit against Burnley, he showed a level of trust in his player and was rewarded with a fine performance.
On its own, Saturday's goal is not enough to convince Capello about Walcott's quality, but by using the carrot of a place in the World Cup to dangle in front of players not certain of a place, club managers can reap the benefits.
If Walcott manages to be an important part of an Arsenal team who win the Premier League, or Zamora plays well in the Europa League against Juventus, or even if Cole can score the goals to save West Ham from relegation, their club's managers will be bellowing about their chances of making the World Cup -- something that is likely to carry more weight with Capello than paper talk.
The months leading up to the World Cup are rare occasions in which international managers have some leverage over their club counterparts. "Fabio Capello has to pick his best team. A win was important, so I don't blame him at all," said Alex Ferguson over the decision to leave Wayne Rooney on the pitch for most of the game against Egypt which resulted in Rooney returning to United with a swollen knee. "I was more disappointed with Wayne. Why didn't he come off?"
Over the years, players from the bigger clubs have pulled out of international squads with muscle strains that have magically recovered in time for their next league game, but, with a World Cup on the horizon even the likes of Rooney, as Ferguson put it, "just can't say no".
By leaving him out of the squad to play Wolves, Ferguson rammed home his point about his disappointment with Rooney and even spoke about him being a doubt for the Champions League game against AC Milan.
It's far easier to be cautious by resting a player at Molineux than against Milan and if Rooney fails to appear at Old Trafford on Wednesday, it will show that Ferguson's talk about the dangers of Rooney's "relentless" desire to play isn't just to protect his club from losing their most valuable asset.
The nagging fear for those players who have struggled to shake off injury throughout the season is seeing their names beside the 'ruled out of the World Cup' headlines which pop up every four years.
Michael Owen was, realistically, unlikely to be part of Capello's plans, but his hamstring injury has now extinguished even the faintest glimmer. Yet, for Liverpool's current star striker, the prospect of a World Cup winner's medal is real and it would be unrealistic to think that Fernando Torres won't have some thoughts towards South Africa in the final 10 Premier League games.
Torres has scored 51 goals in 74 league games for Liverpool and a similar ratio from now until the end of the season would probably ensure the ideal scenario of a Champions League place for his club as well as being in prime form for his country.
Sport is rarely so kind and, while there will be clubs queuing up to offer Champions League football next season if Liverpool don't make it, nobody will be able to give him the chance of being among the first 23 Spaniards to win a World Cup if he is not fit enough to take it.
Torres has already been injured for over a month on two occasions this season and another would severely jeopardise his summer plans. Putting himself on the line so that Liverpool can have the chance of a Champions League qualifier in early August wouldn't be much of a consolation.