On paper, a 3-1 victory against the African Cup of Nations winners, Egypt, a team sitting 17th in the FIFA world rankings, looks like a good result for England. The reality was an unconvincing performance that emphasized England's lack of depth and highlighted the absence of key individuals through injury and the poor form of some players.
With only 10 weeks until England boss Fabio Capello names his provisional World Cup squad, the Italian has his work cut out. The biggest conundrum the last two England bosses faced was how to fit Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard into the same team. Capello faces a whole raft of managerial headaches.
"The first-choice back four picks itself" -- words from our own fair mouths last October as England clinched World Cup qualification with two games to spare. Words that look to be coming back to haunt us.
John Terry was the only one of the said back four fit for Wednesday's friendly against Egypt, the man at the heart of the sex scandal that has seen him stripped of the captaincy. Wayne Bridge -- whose former partner allegedly had an affair with Terry, his onetime close friend -- has pledged not to play for the national side while Terry is in the squad, leading some England fans to boo their former captain. Far from an ideal situation with a little more than three months until the big kickoff in South Africa.
Ashley Cole is another Chelsea player outed for having cheated on his wife, national sweetheart and X-Factor judge Cheryl Cole. Ashley may now be a media villain, but he is still one of the best left backs in the world. However, Cole is sidelined until at least May while recovering from ankle surgery and may miss some of the World Cup. Second-choice Bridge's self-imposed absence has left a void that Everton's Leighton Baines filled against Egypt. Baines is in good EPL form and played well, but he is not at Cole's level. And with only one cap, Baines has little time to become familiar with the rigors of international football.
Judging by his recent performances for Chelsea, and the first half against Egypt, Terry has been affected by off-pitch events (he was, however, more assured in the second half). There's also concern about who will play alongside him in South Africa. Rio Ferdinand's niggling back injury leaves Matthew Upson in the frame. Upson was at fault for Egypt's goal, and Manchester City's Joleon Lescott may have moved up the pecking order. Whatever the outcome, though, England has nothing close in quality to the world-class pairing of a focused Terry alongside a fit Ferdinand.
If there aren't enough question marks for Capello across the back four, there is an even bigger one behind it. Robert Green seems to just have the edge over David James in goal, though neither instills much confidence. Joe Hart has been in excellent form for Birmingham City, but is running out of time to prove himself for England. With the Egypt game an ideal setting to do so, Capello's selection of Green seems to confirm Hart's position as a man in reserve.
In midfield, England missed the penetrative threat of the injured Aaron Lennon. Theo Walcott blew his opportunity to stake his claim, and looks a shadow of the player who scored that stunning hat trick against Croatia 18 months ago. If Lennon makes the World Cup squad, Walcott and Shaun Wright-Phillips are probably vying for one place. Manchester City's Wright-Phillips stole Walcott's thunder with a goal and an assist after replacing the Arsenal winger in the 56th minute. That performance provided rare good news for Capello, who could also slot the versatile James Milner into that position.
The big question in attack is who to play alongside Wayne Rooney. Zero goals from seven starts alongside Rooney suggests that Jermain Defoe, despite his EPL form, is not the answer. Replacing Defoe, Peter Crouch yet again added to his amazing international scoring record (20 goals in 37 appearances), and increased the clamor for his inclusion in the starting lineup. The Tottenham bean pole's scoring record for England is highly impressive, but it's been primarily notched against lesser international sides. Capello's main issue in picking Crouch is that his inclusion transforms the way England plays in such a way that dilutes Rooney's impact. Rooney thrives on balls to his feet, on chasing passes played on the ground in front of him and, especially recently, on receiving crosses. Meanwhile, at 6-foot-7, Crouch is a target for long passes through the air.
Given Rooney's outstanding form, Capello needs to do all he can in his team and formation selection to maximize the influence of England's talisman.
Rooney scored the winning goal in Manchester United's 2-1 Carling Cup victory against Aston Villa last weekend. It was his sixth headed goal in a row, illustrating his growing reputation as a penalty-box power player.
But having salivated over Rooney's bustle and panache last week, we turn now to focus on the Wembley stands that day. Don't worry, dear reader, this isn't a monologue on Norman Foster's sculpted concrete modernist Coliseum; rather, we're noting why there were masses of United fans clad in green and gold. United play in red, yet this looked like a scene from Carrow Road -- or Lambeau Field if you can't visualize the lower-league English football ground that was once home to former San Jose Earthquakes star Darren Huckerby.
Manchester United was formed by railway workers in 1878 as Newton Heath, taking its name from the tough East Manchester neighborhood in which its depot was located. Having provided investment to overcome a financial crisis in 1902, new directors of the club, keen for a fresh start, changed the club's name to Manchester United and its colors to red, black and white.
Fans have reverted to wearing the old 1878-1892 Newton Heath colors of green and gold in protest at the Glazers' ownership of the club. "Green and gold till the club is sold" is a chant that now rings out at matches. An idea that originated from the fanzine Red Issue was backed by the 90,000-member Manchester United Supporter's Trust and the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association, providing widespread support.
At the heart of United's global fan base is a core of politicized, left-leaning supporters who object to the club's being used as a profit-making vehicle by owners with no previous association to their city or team. In a city with strong and proud labor movement traditions, the Glazers' approach sits uneasily with many, especially given that until rule changes in the 1980s, football club directors were prevented by the Football Association from significantly profiting from their position. Indeed, such was the uproar caused by Malcolm Glazer's hostile takeover that hundreds of supporters defected from the club to form the non-league, mutually owned FC United of Manchester, which still attracts home crowds of around 2,000 -- incredibly high for its semi-professional status.
There is also a more widespread concern that the Glazers are mismanaging the club. When Malcolm Glazer's 800 million-pound (about $1.5 billion at the time) hostile takeover was completed in 2005, a refinancing deal was soon put in place that saddled the club with 660 pounds of debt. Despite continuing healthy profits, this total has risen to 716.5 million pounds (though it has fallen in dollar terms, to about $1.1 billion, because of Sterling's crash against the greenback).
The Glazers, though presumably rattled by this growing backlash, probably thought their position was secure until this week when a group of wealthy and powerful supporters interested in buying the club -- the Red Knights -- appealed to fans to not renew their season tickets in an attempt to starve the Glazers of funds.
Cleverly branded, yes, but are the Red Knights saviors in shining armor? They believe that they have more than $1 billion to purchase United, and they certainly have the expertise to run a football club. Led by Jim O'Neill, the head of global economic research at Goldman Sachs, a lifelong United supporter and a friend of Sir Alex Ferguson's, participants in their meeting on Monday included Keith Harris, a well-known football deal-maker who advised during the Chelsea, Aston Villa and Manchester City takeovers; and Mark Rawlinson, a senior partner at Freshfields, the lawyers who advised United during the Glazers' takeover.
According to the London Times, other prominent supporters of the Red Knights include Paul Marshall, the chairman of Marshall Wace, one of London's largest hedge funds, and Richard Hytner, the deputy chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi and a co-founder of the Shareholders United group that fiercely opposed the Glazer takeover.
Manchester United chief executive David Gill said the Glazers won't sell and that the Red Knights' business model of having 20, 30 or 40 wealthy co-owners would leave it lacking leadership. However, with O'Neil promising that "any new ownership model would aim not only to put the club on a sound financial footing, but would also aim to put the supporters at the heart of everything the club does," his support is growing. Team Limey senses blood.
Chris McCabe of Redondo Beach, Calif., asked for insights on the proposed change to the EPL's qualification process for the Champions League -- that the final qualifying place from the EPL would not go to the team that finishes fourth, but to the winner of a playoff contest for the teams finishing fourth to seventh.
Chris, while such a playoff would be exciting and allow more clubs to strive for Champions League qualification later in the season, we're opposed to it (as are EPL bosses, who rejected the idea on Thursday). We think that the top four qualifying is the fairest system and that if seventh qualified instead of fourth, this would risk a weaker English representation in Europe. England currently holds the maximum four Champions League berths, the result of past successes. If success rate drops, so does the number of qualifying places. For instance, it was announced last week that Scotland will have one rather than two Champions League qualifying teams from the 2011-12 season.
Only the clubs playing in the Champions League receive its funding, so there is a case that a playoff system would lead to a greater variety of English qualifiers and therefore a more equitable EPL, but again this would probably be to the detriment of English competitiveness in Europe.