The new year marks the mid-point of the English football season; from Manuel Pellegrini of Manchester City to Chris Wilder of Oxford United, a managerial sigh of relief was heard upon the end of the gruelling Christmas schedule. But while every manager is a footballing Scrooge, cursing and bah-humbugging the period for the physical demands it imposes on players, the Bob Cratchits of the footballing world – the fans – have been gorg-ing upon a veritable festive treat. With Christmas and its glut of games now behind us, managers, players and fans can begin to project where their team might finish in May.
The final months of this season carry extra significance for certain Premier League players who have set their sights on the World Cup in Brazil. Before the tournament starts, we’ll have to endure a media-led (I’m well aware of the irony here) cacophony of rumours, reports and speculation as to who will be “boarding the plane to Rio”.
The final months of the Premier League season are the final chance for players on the fringes of their national teams to stake their claim for the plane ticket to South America.
Here at Cherwell Sport, we’ve focused on three nations – hosts Brazil, holders Spain and hopeless England – and assessed the chances of the Premier League players who will be hoping to represent their teams this summer.
Hosts Brazil have an embarrassing amount of talent at their disposal, including Liverpool’s Phillippe Coutinho. If he can start adding goals to his repertoire of tricks and assists, he may find himself adding to the solitary cap he has gained for his country. Coutinho’s team-mate Lucas Leiva is also vying for a place in the squad, having been overlooked by Brazil coach Luis Felipe Scolari for last year’s Confederations Cup. He faces stiff competition from Paulinho and Sandro, both of Tottenham Hotspur.
Chelsea’s Brazilian duo of Oscar and David Luiz are rated highly by Scolari, having played a major part in the Confederations Cup triumph, and will be confident of securing a place in La Seleção. Scolari’s likely inclusion of Oscar is particularly intriguing when considering Coutinho’s chances – with both playing in the same number 10 position, does Scolari stick with his favoured playmaker in the Chelsea man, thus excluding Coutinho? Or does he include the diminutive ex-Inter Milan player, with the intention of playing him as a winger, a position he has occupied before at Liverpool?
Spain, the holders, are another team whose second string could walk into the national side of most countries. This means the pressure is on for the misfiring Roberto Soldado of Tottenham Hotspur, and Fernando Torres of Chelsea, to replicate the form they enjoyed at previous clubs. This is especially true when we consider the excellent form of David Villa and Brazilian-born Diego Costa at Atletico Madrid.
Costa in particular, who only elected to represent Spain in October of last year, has fired Los Indios to second in La Liga – behind Barcelona only on goal difference – with 19 goals in 17 league games. With Fernando Llorente of Juventus beginning to find his feet following his summer move, it is crucial for both Soldado and Torres to get on the scoresheet regularly if they want to visit Latin America.
Much has been made of the paucity of options available to England compared to other nations. Although there is no doubt that other sides possess stronger squads, England do undoubtedly possess technically gifted players.
Roy Hodgson’s main problem is not that there are not enough good players to choose from; it’s whether the ‘old guard’ – Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole – who are in the twilight stages of their careers, can perform again this year.
If he decides to shun the tried and tested, who have admittedly failed to deliver in major tournaments, in favour of the talented new generation, headed by Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley and Daniel Sturridge, England could be an unpredictable banana skin for more fancied sides.
An England starting eleven that favours the young over the old would be a gamble – but it is certainly an exciting prospect and something to look forward to seeing. A strong end to the season for these unproven players could lead Hodgson to take a significant, albeit potentially rewarding, leap of faith