So, Roy Hodgson threw us a curve ball and named a provisional squad of 26 instead of the expected 23 for Euro 2016. The England boss explained the decision at his press conference and on the FA website last week but it adds an extra incentive for many of the players in these pre-tournament fixtures over the next few weeks.
There is not much doubt about 18 of the 26, so let’s take a look at the eight who are vying for the last five places.
Walker has had a great season, is much improved defensively and deserves to go. However, Hodgson has cover for right back and might not need to take two specialists in that position when Chris Smalling, John Stones, Eric Dier and James Milner could all do a job should Clyne be unavailable.
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The benefit would be freeing up an extra spot in midfield or up front. Nevertheless, Walker would still be considered a surprise omission as it would leave Hodgson with just six named defenders for the tournament.
Delph is trusted by Hodgson but has been beset with injuries. For that reason alone he must be a doubt, especially considering how many other injury prone players are also in the reckoning. The other factors going against Delph are the emergence of Danny Drinkwater and that he has not been playing much first team football. Therefore, these warm-up fixtures will be crucial for the Manchester City midfielder to impress.
Henderson has only played 30 minutes since returning from injury. Hodgson said at the squad announcement: “I didn’t want to name people who were unfit and we’d be sweating on them becoming fit before the Euros start” and Henderson is certainly one of those. The Liverpool captain is a favourite of Hodgson, but so are some of his rivals for a spot which makes his place far from guaranteed.
His emergence this season has been as surprising as it has been impressive. Buoyed by what Leicester have achieved this season, his confidence is sky high. He might be an outsider, but regardless of how well he has protected his back four and distributed the ball, the simple fact that he has not been injured must surely work in his favour.
Another who is just back from injury. A lengthy absence has rendered this season almost a write off for the 24-year-old. Ordinarily this would rule him out of the running, but Wilshere is arguably England’s finest midfielder. Hodgson is also a big fan and if he can prove he is 100% fit, he will be in the starting XI - not just the squad.
Was an absolute certainty six months ago, but a lack of form, goals, first team opportunities and the revival of Andros Townsend have put his place in jeopardy. England will rely on counter-attacking football against the better sides and Sterling is well suited, so that will go in his favour; as will the fact that he is surely a big part of England’s future and would benefit from this experience.
Still only 24-years-old, Townsend was once the first name on Hodgson’s team sheet; he played very well and scored some important goals for the England manager.
A lull was prompted by injury and a lack of first-team opportunities at Spurs, but having single-handedly almost rescued Newcastle from the drop he is very much back in the frame and deservedly so.
The real surprise in the provisional squad, he is surely the favourite to miss out, but there are some factors in his favour. One of these again is fitness. There are only four other strikers in the squad and two of them have fitness doubts.
Wayne Rooney has only just recovered from another pre-tournament injury and Sturridge is always liable to break down. Rashford looks certain to be involved at international level in the future and a tournament experience would be no bad thing. It doesn’t feel as much of a gamble as when Sven Goran Eriksson wasted a place on Theo Walcott in 2006.
So, those are the runners and riders, but who goes and who misses out? Clearly, the biggest issue is injuries, which is why the announcement of the 23 was delayed in the first place. England have too often travelled to tournaments with players who were not match fit and Hodgson is keen not to fall into that trap.
The good news is that except for in defence, the current pool of players is bigger than in previous years so he can afford to leave good players out.
There are four central midfielders in the eight above and it is likely that only two will travel. Based on fitness alone Drinkwater should get the nod and, out of the three injury concerns, it's likely he will gamble on Wilshere’s extra quality ahead of Delph and Henderson.
England’s weakness is undoubtedly in defence: there simply isn't enough good defenders available for selection. So, purely because they are unlikely to be relying on the back four to win matches anyway it would be tempting to leave Walker at home and expand the attacking options further by taking Townsend, Sterling and Rashford.
However, this will be one gamble too far, so Rashford will get the benefit of training with the senior squad, but should ultimately stay at home for the Euros.
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