Five questions England needs to answer before opener against U.S.
If Gareth Barry can't play, England's balance could be affected
David James has to be goalie, even though he doesn't inspire much confidence
England also has questions at central defense and in the front four
Just over two weeks to go until England opens its World Cup campaign against the USA in Rustenburg and manager Fabio Capello has a bunch of unresolved questions. Not a big deal per se, everybody has them at this stage. Yet finding the right answers will likely determine how far England gets in this competition. Here are five Capello conundrums:
1. What happens if Gareth Barry isn't fit?
Barry was always something of a fall-back option in the holding midfield role. After all, he did some of his best work at Aston Villa last season alongside Stilian Petrov, a more traditional defensive player. And whatever you may think of Frank Lampard, he's no Petrov.
Yet Barry is strong, bright and reads the game well. If he doesn't recover from his ankle injury, the choice is between Scott Parker, Tom Huddlestone and Michael Carrick. (Or possibly James Milner, except he'd really be out of position). Of the three, Parker is theoretically the best fit, though, in terms of passing he's a notch below the other two.
Huddlestone is an unusual player who doesn't offer much in terms of dynamism and speed, while Carrick is also a bit clunky and, what's more, he has not had a good season. Getting this right is crucial to England's balance.
UNSOLICITED ADVICE: Go with Parker. You don't want to mess with a non-specialist at this point.
2. Who's between the sticks?
Capello seemed to be leaning towards David James, who's on the brink of his 40th birthday. But then, he was left out of Monday's friendly against Mexico, ostensibly to "rest" after playing in the FA Cup final nine days earlier (though how much "rest" a goalkeeper needs is a matter for debate). James is a better package than Joe Hart (too young and inexperienced) and Robert Green (another one coming off a terrible campaign, though he did look good against Mexico), but you have to wonder about his age and health. Plus, somewhere in the back of people's minds there's always the "Calamity James" shenanigans of yesteryear.
UNSOLICITED ADVICE: Gotta be James. How many brain freezes is a guy going to have at a major tournament? He has already reached his quota.
3. Who leads the line?
Forget the fact that Wayne Rooney played up front for Manchester United and scored lots of goals this season. Capello does not view him as a genuine centerforward (and neither, for that matter, do I).
His idea is that Rooney should lie deeper, alongside Steven Gerrard and another winger. Fine, but somebody needs to play up front who can clear space for these guys and link up with them. Emile Heskey is strong, hard-working and unselfish, but he spent half a year on the bench for Aston Villa and was nowhere in sight Monday. Neither Darren Bent nor Jermain Defoe are particularly known for their link-up play, though they would at least add some much-needed pace. Peter Crouch is another anomaly. Yes, his reed-thin, 6-foot-7 frame looks weird and he's not quick, but his scoring record with England is outstanding. That said, he looks much more like an off-the-bench impact players.
UNSOLICITED ADVICE: Heskey is a known quantity. Bent and/or Defoe look like they play by themselves. Crouch would terrify opposing defenders, but this team needs a more traditional centerforward.
4. How many fragile central defenders can you afford to bring?
Ledley King and Rio Ferdinand started in central defense against Mexico. Between the two, they started just 31 league games last season. Ferdinand, after being named as captain, pretty much has to go, despite his back issues. King ended the year on a high, but he has broken down so many times, it's easy to lose count. Plus, neither looked particularly sharp on Monday. Take them both and you risk finding yourself down to just three centrebacks (and that's assuming you take Jamie Carragher as your reserve rightback).
UNSOLICITED ADVICE: Steer clear of King. Michael Dawson and Matthew Upson are, at least, able-bodied.
5. Who completes the front four?
The other three are Gerrard, Rooney and the centerforward. You can go with Joe Cole on the left or Aaron Lennon or Theo Walcott on the right. Or give Shaun Wright-Philips or James Milner a shot, they can operate on either flank. The versatile Milner is increasingly looking like a jack-of-all trades hole-plugger, probably best to you use him that way. Plus, England needs flat out speed given the other midfielders and strikers and Milner is not exactly a sprinter.
Neither, for that matter, is Cole, though his creativity and dribbling skills will come in handy. Walcott, of course, scored a famous hat-trick against Croatia and was one of the most highly touted youngsters in Europe. But he's been slowed by injuries and poor performances, as has Wright-Philips, who may be tricky, but has the added negative of being tiny. Lennon may be the fastest of the bunch and his directness is appealing: probably could read the game better and, he too, has had injuries to cope with.
UNSOLICITED ADVICE: Lennon just shades this. Capello seems to love Walcott, but increasingly you get the sense that he loves the idea of Walcott more than the player. Milner will likely be called upon to fill in somewhere else, Wright-Philips is just too small. Cole can give you something off the bench.