x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

England's returning anchor

After six weeks on the sidelines, Gareth Barry will be back against Algeria with heightened expectations - and he should help his team keep the ball, writes Richard Jolly.

Gareth Barry, who returns to the  England team today, takes a break during training.
Gareth Barry, who returns to the England team today, takes a break during training.

Hail the returning hero. That, at least, seems the greeting. It is nevertheless an unlikely one. Gareth Barry generated comparatively few headlines until, six weeks ago, he injured his right ankle while playing for Manchester City against Tottenham on May 6. His comeback will be made against Algeria tonight. His spell on the sidelines is proof positive that few things elevate a reputation as dramatically as absence. Barry finds himself deemed integral, not least by Fabio Capello who, despite his preference for naming his side two hours before kick-off, confirmed the midfielder's return two days in advance.

Barry is back, charged with rectifying some of England's wrongs. A player with a short, neat passing game enters a team who have displayed an inability to retain possession for any length of time. He has a sufficient sense of responsibility that, although not a natural holding player, he can anchor the midfield and give Steven Gerrard a freer role. In a tournament where, from Uruguay to Switzerland, defensive midfielders have been quietly accomplished, England finally have one. They can but wonder if, had Barry played against the US, he would have closed down Clint Dempsey down on Saturday and averted the World Cup's most embarrassing mistake.

There is a tactical significance and a knock-on effect. The shape of the midfield was an issue against the United States; so were the personnel. James Milner, whose unhappy cameo on the left lasted half an hour then, will be displaced by Gerrard tonight. England's 4-4-2 formation, too rigid then, should be more flexible now with the captain equipped with a roving brief. It is not, as many wish it was, his Liverpool role, but it means the ongoing issue of his partnership with Frank Lampard can be put to one side. Instead, Wayne Rooney will be partnered in attack by either the selfless or the selfish, Emile Heskey or Jermain Defoe. The former laboured loyally against the US without providing the finish; the latter specialises in providing the final touch but tends to excuse himself from the build-up.

The much-maligned Heskey is a cause of criticism. The "kick and rush" Franz Beckenbauer disparagingly referred to is a consequence of England aiming for a target man, a role Heskey performed quietly well in the draw with the United States. The sense remains, nonetheless, that a superior standard of football is necessary if England are to realise their ambitions. So, too, are clean sheets, a comparative rarity under Capello. They have mustered a mere seven in 25 games, with Robert Green's butterfingered blunder depriving them of a shutout against the Americans.

The three-way selection decision between Green, David James and Joe Hart is certain to command attention. It seems implausible that the erring Green will retain his place, though the greater problem is that Capello appears completely confident in none of the trio. He has a different defence, too, after Ledley King was somewhat predictably injured. Jamie Carragher, his replacement on Saturday, was unsettled by the quick, muscular Jozy Altidore. His partnership with John Terry, another who cannot cite speed as an asset, means England may defend deeper, though there are few indications the Algeria forward line contains blistering pace. Truth be told, there is little evidence that Algeria should worry England. The problem is that, thus far in the World Cup, they have provided enough cause for concern themselves. sports@thenational.ae

Key battles Glen Johnson v Nadir Belhadj Two attacking full-backs and arguably their respective sides' best players in their opening game, the former Portsmouth teammates possess plenty of pace. It should be a turbo-charged battle for supremacy on the touchline. Both look much better going forward than defending. Tactical analysis With Abdelkader Ghezzal suspended, Algeria are short of strikers. They may incorporate a third centre-back, but a likely policy is to pack the midfield. England will select two forwards, but much rests on the trio of Gerrard, Rooney and Aaron Lennon to break forward and recreate the 4-2-3-1 system that worked well in qualifying. Player to watch Steven Gerrard The Liverpool midfielder began the World Cup in barnstorming fashion with his fourth-minute goal against the United States. Shifted to the left of midfield today, he should have more licence to roam and wreak havoc, especially against probably the weakest defensive unit in the group. Last meeting The nations have never met, but both picked lookalike opponents in their warm-up matches in the hope of getting some insight into each other's style of play. England hosted Egypt, Algeria's hated rivals, at Wembley, beating them 3-1. Algeria travelled to the Republic of Ireland and lost 3-0. By that reckoning it should be an England victory then? Did you know? David James, the England keeper who may replace Rob Green today, is the tournament's oldest player, at 39 years and 320 days. Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Mexico's cult hero striker, is the oldest outfield player, at 37 years and five months. At the other end of the spectrum, Denmark's Christian Eriksen is only 18 years old.

Group C
Country M W D L GF GA Pts
Slovenia 1 1 0 0 1 0 3
England 1 0 1 0 1 1 1
USA 1 0 1 0 1 1 1
Algeria 1 0 0 1 0 1 0