England face their final dress rehearsal for Euro 2012 against Belgium today, with Roy Hodgson’s men desperate for a morale-boosting display after a week dominated by dispiriting injury bulletins.
The sense of pessimism already surrounding England’s chaotic buildup to the tournament has grown more palpable after the double blow of losing Gareth Barry (abdomen) and Frank Lampard (thigh) in the wake of the 1-0 win over Norway.
The cruel loss of the two veteran midfielders leaves a thin squad looking alarmingly short of experience in key areas, with the role of captain Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker assuming even greater importance.
With England’s opening Group D match against France on June 11 hoving rapidly into view, Hodgson could be forgiven for wanting to protect both Gerrard and Parker until that daunting assignment at the Donbass Arena, but he will want to see his starting 11 for the France game get at least 45 minutes together, which means Parker and Gerrard are likely to start at Wembley, just as they did in Oslo last weekend.
Liverpool striker Andy Carroll is expected to be given another opportunity to cement his place as the tip of the England spear in attack, with Manchester United’s Ashley Young operating just behind him.
It remains to be seen who Hodgson will favor in the wide areas. Stewart Downing and James Milner started against Norway, but England improved with the introduction of the pacier Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The return of the Chelsea contingent is likely to mean wholesale changes in the back four, where Ashley Cole, John Terry and Gary Cahill are expected to start with either Phil Jones or Glen Johnson occupying the rightback berth.
England’s dearth of options throughout the squad means Hodgson’s tactical setup will become even more crucial.
Although the England manager repeatedly emphasizes he has been “parachuted” into his post following the departure in February of Fabio Capello, he has impressed his players so far in the short time they have been together.
“I think he can impose his ideas, the tactical knowledge, and how he wants the team to shape up and how he wants us to play,” was the verdict of defender Phil Jagielka this week, brought in to replace Barry. “We’ve all been playing for a number of years. It’s not like it is a new game for us, but he can put his thoughts across on the training ground. He and Ray Lewington will be out on the training ground getting us to play the way they want us to play. Hopefully, they can find the missing ingredient to put us through to the latter stages of the tournament.”
Assistant coach Gary Neville struck a defiant tone, praising Hodgson’s decision to give England’s players 10 days off at the end of the season.
“One of the brave things Roy Hodgson has done is given the players 10 days off, which no manager has ever given,” said Neville, who has also emphasized that anything could be possible for England should they advance past the first round. “I have been explaining to some of the lads, I went to five tournaments and four of them we went out on penalties. We have got a great ’keeper and that’s not being disrespectful to the ones I played with, but that could make a difference. If we get to a quarter-final and our great goalkeeper saves two or three, we are in the semi-final.”