England fell to a second successive home defeat for the first time in 1977 on Tuesday night, but at least they haven’t got fans dreaming of an unlikely triumph in Brazil.
After a less than convincing Group H campaign, qualification to the World Cup Finals was finally secured last month after collecting back-to-back home wins against Montenegro and Poland. Another double date at Wembley was on the agenda this month, yet in far more formidable shape of Chile and Germany. The South Americans recorded a 2-0 win last Friday, and then on Tuesday night, the old nemesis had yet more success in London when a Per Mertesacker goal was enough to inflict a second successive home reverse for the first time in 36 years.
Ending the calendar year with two defeats in five days is hardly a morale booster ahead of what awaits in 2014, but at least there were some positives against Joachim Low’s reserve side. Joe Hart, for example, seemed to have put his recent poor form behind him, and pulled off a superb save shortly before the Arsenal defender rose above Chris Smalling to score the only goal of the game. Andros Townsend, the Tottenham Hotspur winger, again produced a performance which made a mockery of the fact this was only his fourth cap. And Southampton’s Adam Lallana was also impressive, marking him out as a serious contender for a place in the Finals squad.
But, as ever, there are more concerns than positives. Hodgson must decide who will form the heart of his back four, having used Smalling, Phil Jagielka, Gary Cahill and Phil Jones at various points over the past two matches. There were even rumblings in the press of a recall for former skipper John Terry, and although the controversial Chelsea defender appears to have rediscovered his form under Jose Mourinho this season, it’s hard to imagine he is the answer to the problem.
Whereas the Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines battle may well remain unresolved until the first team selection of the tournament is made next year, at least whoever gets the nod will likely produce a sound performance. Can the same be said on the other flank, though? This looks to be a straight choice between Glen Johnson and Kyle Walker, but neither instil anything like the same level of confidence as their left-sided equivalents from Everton and Chelsea.
In midfielder, Gerrard is the automatic selection, but who plays alongside the captain? Patience in pairing the Liverpool star with Frank Lampard has long expired, which would leave Manchester United duo Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley battling it out with Jack Wilshere. On his day, the Arsenal youngster is as good as anyone in the country, but England have struggled to keep the ball in the past, especially in the big tournaments against the better teams, and for this to improve then the experience of Carrick, who ridiculously has just 31 caps, would be the man for the job.
Another United player, Wayne Rooney, is arguably the most important member of the starting XI. But who should act in tandem with the 28-year-old? Jermain Defoe will probably have to leave Spurs if he wants to be a serious contender, which is something Rickie Lambert, despite his form for Southampton over the past two years, is probably not. Daniel Sturridge played 90 minutes against Germany, and if club form is taken into consideration, as of course it should, then if he can maintain his goal return for Liverpool for the duration of the season – so far, he has 10 goals in 13 appearances in all competition – he deserves his chance in Brazil.
So there is much for Hodgson to ponder, and with only one friendly match – against Denmark in March – to play before he names his provisional squad of 30 players, he doesn’t have many opportunities or time in which to do so. But at least he doesn’t have to dampen the expectations of the England fans, many of whom would probably consider it a success if home interest in the tournament stretches beyond the group phase.