England defender John Terry has seen his form dip lately after being stripped of the English captaincy.
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There is no doubt that England's key player in South Africa will be Manchester United's Wayne Rooney, who is enjoying the form of his life. The master of powerful surging runs and long-range piledrivers has, through penalty-box poaching, upped his goal rate to complete his game and put him on a par with Argentina's Lionel Messi and his former teammate Cristiano Ronaldo as one of the world's leading footballers. England is highly dependent on its talisman and worries exist that Rooney's work rate and intensive schedule for Manchester United may lead to pre-tournament burnout.
Fabio Capello's team includes a number of other world-class stars, but their form and fitness are worrisome. On their day, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand are one of the strongest center back partnerships on the international scene -- their reading of the game and experience of playing together make up for what they may lack in pace. However, Terry's form for Chelsea has suffered since the sex scandal that saw him stripped of the England captaincy, and Ferdinand has struggled this season with a niggling back injury.
Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard are the engines in the Chelsea and Liverpool midfields -- box-to-box midfielders who are as adept at tackling and breaking up play at one end of the pitch as they are in setting up and scoring goals at the other end. However, it has proved difficult to incorporate these similar playing styles together in the England midfield. In the past, Lampard has reluctantly reined in his attacking instincts and occupied a more defensive role to support Gerrard's forward thrusts. Gareth Barry's establishment as the anchor in England's midfield has successfully granted both Gerrard and Lampard more attacking freedom, but has led to Gerrard's playing in an unfamiliar wide-left midfield position.
News that Ashley Cole's recovery from the foot injury he sustained in February is ahead of schedule is a huge boost for England, and means that he should be fit for the finals. Cole not only gets forward with pace, but he also rarely gets caught out of position. Another attacking fullback, Everton's Leighton Baines, waits in the wings. Baines is little known internationally (he has only one cap), but if he plays, watch out for some sweet deliveries.
Rooney, Terry, Ferdinand, Gerrard, Lampard and Cole are the only members of the squad that can truly be described as world class. For England to live up to its billing as third favorite, all six will have to be playing at the top of their game.
What to watch for
Although England has undoubted quality in a number of positions, it lacks the strength in depth of, say, the Spain and Netherlands squads. In addition, there is uncertainty over who should start in a number of positions.
Many managers will be able to pick their starting 11 with ease, and Spain coach Vicente del Bosque has the luxury of working out which world-class player to slot into a number of positions. In contrast, beyond the six players mentioned above, along with Barry and Glen Johnson (if fit), Capello has some difficult conundrums to solve over who the remaining starters will be. There are some potential weak links.
In goal, Robert Green seems to just have the edge over David James, although neither instils much confidence. On the right wing, and in the attacking spot alongside Rooney, England is likely to field players who aren't consistent starters for their clubs. Shaun Wright-Phillips' performance in England's last match, against Egypt, and his marginally more frequent club appearances could see him replace the injured Aaron Lennon on the right wing ahead of Arsenal's Theo Walcott.
Despite his inferior scoring record, Emile Heskey is expected to partner with Rooney ahead of Peter Crouch or Jermaine Defoe. Capello believes that Rooney is far more effective alongside the bustling Heskey, and bringing Crouch's aerial ability on from the bench offers a useful Plan B. Defoe -- the pick of the three in the Premiership -- has been shown to not interact well with Rooney, failing to score in the seven England matches they have started as a partnership.
Capello would have also appreciated the option of having David Beckham (out with an injured Achilles tendon) on the substitutes' bench. His world-class crossing and dead-ball deliveries will be sorely missed. However, as the Italian intends to invite Beckham as a non-playing member of the squad, watch out for the usual media circus that surrounds the global icon.
Key match in group stage
June 12 vs. the U.S. Both England and the U.S. should beat Algeria and Slovenia, and this opening match should decide the group winner -- the team that will likely avoid an awkward second-round meeting with England's penalty-shootout nemesis, Germany.
Celebrity scouting report: Ricky Hatton*
England's biggest strength is Rooney, as he's in great form. ... I'm very much confident in the direction of the squad under Capello. He seems like a disciplinarian and maybe that's what England needs. ... I wanted Beckham in the squad, but with his injury it's not looking good for him. I have become friends with David so I would love to see him playing for England again. I just wish him and his family good luck. ... I'm not too bothered about the left back situation with Cole's injury. We have plenty of young players coming through in the squad. ... Ferdinand is the right choice for the captaincy under the circumstances. He's proved himself as captain with Manchester United and done a good job for England when called upon. ... They have to have a great chance in this group. They must be favorites, and if they don't advance, I will be very disappointed. ... The last time we won the World Cup was 1966, so it's been a long time coming. They must go all the way and anything less than winning won't be considered a success.
*The former two-division boxing champion is from Manchester, England. As told to Bryan Armen Graham.