England’s stars set for final World Cup audition
Graz: Some of England’s biggest stars may feel on trial this weekend as Fabio Capello’s team play their final World Cup warm-up match against Japan just 48 hours before the squad is cut to the final 23 who will go to South Africa.
The announcement of an England squad for a major tournament is always a nervous and emotional affair and the reaction of Paul Gascoigne, who famously let his anger get the better of him in then coach Glenn Hoddle’s hotel room when told he would not travel to the 1998 World Cup, shows how much it means to the players.
Gascoigne’s omission only goes to show that even the most high profile player cannot rest easy in these situations.
So it is not only fringe performers such as West Ham’s Scott Parker and Aston Villa’s Stephen Warnock who are feeling anxious ahead of their last chance to make a case for inclusion here in Graz.
Chelsea’s Joe Cole for instance, an established international with 53 caps and one of England’s better performers in Germany in 2006, knows his World Cup future is hanging by a thread.
Cole hasn’t played for his country since September 2008 due to a combination of injury and poor form.
It means the 28-year-old winger must catch Capello’s eye in Graz if he wants to see off competition from the likes of Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott, Shaun Wright-Phillips and new boy Adam Johnson, who has won praise from Capello since joining the squad for the first time at the age of just 22.
Whether to include Cole is probably Capello’s toughest decision but it is by no means the Italian’s only dilemma.
In the past he has indicated he may only take four strikers and that would mean leaving out the prolific Darren Bent, scorer of 25 goals for Sunderland this season.
There are also decisions to be made in midfield where Gareth Barry is said to be winning his battle against an ankle injury, but could still struggle to be fit for England’s opening game of the World Cup against the USA on June 12.
To add to the conundrum Capello is possibly the only World Cup coach who does not yet know his number one goalkeeper - he gave Robert Green and Joe Hart 45 minutes each in the previous match against Mexico but is expected to go with David James on Sunday.
Whatever happens, captain Rio Ferdinand admits it will be a nervous weekend for the England players and he is preparing himself for the role of agony aunt to his younger teammates.
“It is a nervous situation,” he said. “It is pressure; you want to do well, you want to be on that plane.
“It’s going to be tough and I know because I’ve been there, I’ve had that talk, that conversation, saying you’re not experienced enough, not good enough, however they want to dress it up.
“I was left out for Euro 2000 and it took me that summer to get over it but I went back to training, was a better professional, trained harder and became a better player and I say that for the younger players left out this time to probably do that as well.
“When the time comes I’m sure we will deal with it in the right way but the manager is top drawer and I’m sure he will sort it out.”
The match is perhaps even more important for Japan who are anxious to recover form and confidence following some disappointing results in the build-up to the World Cup.
Takeshi Okada’s team have lost three out of their last four home games, including 2-0 to South Korea on Monday, and have faced strong criticism back home and from former coach Phillippe Troussier.
They may well rely on the form of Espanyol midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura who will look to test James from free-kicks and there could also be an appearance from Junichi Inamoto after he recovered from a hamstring injury.
Having endured a stuttering career in England playing for Fulham, Arsenal, West Bromwich and Cardiff, Inamoto, the golden boy of Japan in the 2002 World Cup, has a point to prove - especially as he broke his ankle the last time he faced England in 2004.