The new football season is here, and in some divisions of non-league and countries around Europe the teams are already back in the swing of things and approaching full fitness. But before England’s players get underway in the Premier League, the August international must be negotiated. This year, England are nominally at home but will actually play the match in Bern, the capital of Switzerland. The opponents? None other than Italy, our conquerors in the 12-yard duel in Ukraine at UEFA Euro 2012.
None of the players that were selected for the European Championships – with one exception, a player who will play a big part in this preview – were made available by the Football Association for Stuart Pearce’s Great Britain team at the Olympic Games, but a number of the players who did play in the Olympics feature in Roy Hodgson’s second squad, named for the game in Switzerland this Wednesday evening.
It is, of course, a fluke of competition football that England will play twice consecutively against the Italians. By winning Group D at the Euros, England set up a quarter-final against Cesare Prandelli’s Azzurri and set about frustrating their opponents, just as Glenn Hoddle’s England had done in Rome in 1997. Defensive-minded football had proved relatively effective for Hodgson in the group matches but in this case his team saw out 120 goalless minutes more by fortune than design.
Some of the chances Italy squandered in the quarter-final match would have been put away 99 times out of 100, and their profligacy conveniently masked the ineffectiveness of England’s game plan. But only the most blinkered England supporter would have been expecting or demanding a win over Italy, so most of us were happy enough for the team to ride its luck and try to nick a goal – we could have done without penalty kicks, though.
The protagonists of the European Championships match in June are largely absent, with both Hodgson and Prandelli having named ‘B’ squads for what would have once been a ‘B’ international. England were set to be without their most recent first choice defence, with Glen Johnson, John Terry, Joleon Lescott and Ashley Cole omitted. Lescott has been called in late.
By and large this is an England team made up of young, inexperienced and even uncapped players. Goalkeepers Jack Butland and John Ruddy have been included and at least one will make his debut, as Joe Hart has now withdrawn from the squad through injury. Daniel Sturridge of Chelsea is out too, and Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain picked up an ankle injury in training and was promptly ruled out.
Along with Great Britain’s impressive young goalkeeper, Hodgson has called in Ryan Bertrand, Steven Caulker and Tom Cleverley – all uncapped for England but regulars at the Olympics – and Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Jake Livermore. Jack Rodwell has just signed for Manchester City from Everton and did so while on England duty; he’s back in after making his debut last season but only making 14 Premier League appearances for the Toffees. Michael Carrick of Manchester United, controversially absent from the Euros squad, is the most newsworthy selection for Hodgson, and a deserved return to the fray.
If England’s squad is developmental, Italy’s is a full-on experiment. Prandelli named 12 uncapped players, and two with only a single national team appearance to their names. Salvatore Sirigu, now with Paris Saint-Germain, has two more caps than the other two named goalkeepers combined: he has two.
No player other than midfielders Daniele De Rossi and Alberto Aquilani have won more than 20 caps. Rodwell’s new club colleague Mario Balotelli, who demolished Germany in the European Championships semi-final, was originally called up for Italy but has withdrawn due to conjunctivitis. I checked, that’s really the reason.
With the senior players remaining with their clubs, the youngsters had their chance to shine in front of the media. Unsurprisingly, Butland and Cleverley are eager to get their first England appearances under their belts.
Butland’s remarkable rise to prominence hasn’t phased him at all. Although he is on the books of Birmingham City, he is yet to make a single league appearance at a higher level than League Two, where he’s been on loan at Cheltenham Town. But he is a regular fixture within the FA system and has made his mark in an England shirt, especially in recent appearances for the Under-21s. He’s desperate to get his gloves on in Switzerland on Wednesday:
“It’s what dreams are made of. Unfortunately it’s come, or hopefully will come, due to an injury which is unfortunate for Joe but if I get the chance it will be a dream come true. It’s something I can’t stop thinking about and I’d love the chance to be able to perform on that stage on Wednesday night. I think it’s very important, I’m not going to try and put too much pressure on myself or expect anything because there’s not a lot of goalkeepers who get the chance at such a young age so I’m very privileged to be in this position.”
Cleverley came close to a debut last season but was ruled out through injury, and his Premier League experience makes him an attractive debutant for Hodgson. Like Butland, he thinks he’s ready:
“It was a strange season for me last year, but I’m over that now and I’m just getting my head down and hoping to play as much football as possible whether it’s for England or Manchester United. First of all, I want to get my first cap. For any footballer, it’s a massive one and growing up, it’s something that you dream of. It will be the pinnacle of my career if I do, along with winning trophies, it will be a massive honour for me and my family and I would be very proud.”
Italy will be wearing a one-off Puma strip to commemorate their FIFA World Cup 1982 victory, whose 30th anniversary passed in the summer. Will they be wearing it in a meaningless friendly? Sure. But it’s a valuable opportunity for both managers to have a closer look at some of the young players at their disposal, and it’s an opportunity that won’t exist next year. Let’s hope Hodgson makes the most of it.
(Photo credit: twicepix via Flickr)