x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

England on the back foot ahead of World Cup 2014 qualifier

England have had some outstanding central defenders in recent years. Now their World Cup 2014 hopes may rest with two men who cannot get in their club sides.

At 31, Joleon Lescott, left, could be a stopgap option in England's defence, with Chris Smalling a long-term choice. Eddie Keogh / Reuters
At 31, Joleon Lescott, left, could be a stopgap option in England's defence, with Chris Smalling a long-term choice. Eddie Keogh / Reuters

After the rumours and then call-up, after the speculation if he would accept it and then the confirmation he would not, after the punditry in Qatar and the derogatory chants in San Marino, finally it is not about Rio Ferdinand tonight.

Or not directly, anyhow. While the Manchester United defender has gone from cause celebre to persona non grata with the England supporters by rejecting a belated return to the international fold, at long last attention switches from the man who is not playing to those who are.

In the melodrama surrounding the former captain, who has occupied the roles of hero and villain for different factions, Joleon Lescott and Chris Smalling have been rather obscured. Now they take centre stage. Now the question can be answered: are England suffering from an uncharacteristic lack of quality central defenders?

Had Ferdinand and John Terry not retired from international football, they would not be paired. But for the injuries that have sidelined Phil Jagielka, Phil Jones, Gary Cahill and Michael Dawson, neither would be in the team.

Indeed, Lescott was not in Roy Hodgson's original squad, yet as the alternatives are the two Stevens, Caulker and Taylor, who have 74 minutes of international football between them, they find themselves thrust to prominence now. A team that used to build from the back may have a soft underbelly.

It is a new problem for a country that, no matter how its other footballers have failed, has usually been able to gaze at the middle of the defence for reassurance. England's recent history in major tournaments has been underwhelming but the better performers have tended to include the centre-backs: Tony Adams in 1996 and 1998, Sol Campbell in 1998, 2002 and 2004, Ferdinand in 2002 and 2006, Terry in 2004, 2006 and 2012.

Days of diabolical defending, such as the 4-1 defeat to Germany in the 2010 World Cup or the disastrous campaign Kevin Keegan oversaw in Euro 2000, have been few.

So England are in uncharted territory. Whereas they once enjoyed such riches that Jamie Carragher, at his defiant best one of Europe's finest defenders, was never an automatic choice for his country, now they have men who cannot get in their club sides.

In the pivotal World Cup qualifying game of Group H of Uefa qualifying, a nation's hopes rest with the men with the fourth-choice centre-backs for Manchester City and United, respectively. In the intimidating atmosphere of Podgorica, the place where Wayne Rooney lost his head and, as he was sent off, his place on the pitch two years ago, they meet a Montenegro side whose strength lies in their strike partnership.

Bolting high-class attackers to an organised and efficient side can be a potent formula and, while Montenegro's small population – 632,000 – has been quoted frequently in the build-up, the key figures are Mirko Vucinic and Stevan Jovetic, whose class is advertised in Serie A.

Montenegro have been playing international football for only six years but Vucinic, the Juventus striker, is their record scorer. In time that accolade will surely belong to Fiorentina's Jovetic, six years his junior.

Should Lescott and Smalling want a favourable omen, they have just kept a country's most prolific marksman quiet.

However, that would have been more impressive had the striker in question not been San Marino's Andy Selva, who was starved of service and operated so deep that he practically played as an extra midfielder in an 8-0 defeat when his side had just 17 per cent of possession.

After a mismatch comes a proper contest. It should stand Lescott in good stead that he was England's most dependable defender in Euro 2012. His subsequent slide down the pecking order came because he fell out of favour at City. But for a groin injury, Smalling would almost certainly have joined him in the England party that travelled to Poland and Ukraine last summer.

A favourite of Hodgson's since their days together at Fulham, he was catapulted from the United bench to the Wembley Stadium pitch to face Brazil last month.

If Lescott, nearing his 31st birthday and not in his club side, is starting to look like a stopgap selection, the 23-year-old Smalling could be the long-term choice.

But his career has stalled. Bought as part of Sir Alex Ferguson's future planning, the men from the past show an obstinate refusal to make way. Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic continue to block his path to the United team but with England's tried-and-trusted partnership separated and the likelihood neither the 34-year-old Ferdinand nor Terry will return, there is an opportunity.

If it is not grasped, however, then England, already two points behind Montenegro, may find that without Ferdinand, they are not going to Brazil for next year's World Cup.

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