Football: Rittle at the back

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FOOTBALL

England breezed into Euro 2016 as the only team to win all their matches in qualifying.

The sterling record paints a rosy picture, but it flatters the team because question marks remain about their foundation.

England traditionally go into a major tournament with the defensive unit the least of their worries.

This time, though, manager Roy Hodgson finds at his disposal a lumbering unit that has plenty of convincing to do between now and the tournament proper in three months.

He prepares the Three Lions for a high-profile friendly against Germany at the Olympiastadion in Berlin on Sunday morning (Singapore time), knowing that the performance will serve as a benchmark of how far they have come since crashing out of the 2014 World Cup at the group stage.

But he will also go into battle with England’s weakest defence since he took charge of the national team four years ago.

He’s close to clutching at straws.

Chris Smalling is seen as a definite starter, with the centre back enjoying his best season in a Manchester United shirt.

But his recent performances for the Red Devils have raised doubts about his consistency and big-game temperament, and his poor ability on the ball is very much a liability in the modern age.

Gary Cahill appears to be his likely partner in the heart of the defence, but the Chelsea centre half, like his club, is having a nightmarish season.

It was only because of an injury to Kurt Zouma that the England vice-captain found himself back in the Blues’ starting 11. Hodgson’s options are limited.

He can go for the technically gifted John Stones, but the Everton man has been dropped by Roberto Martinez because of his recent poor form and the constant media scrutiny of the 21-year-old, who has started just one match since Jan 27.

The defender’s tendency to take risks with the ball may not sit well with the England manager, too.

Stones’ teammate Phil Jagielka is another alternative, although the Toffees’ poor defensive record in the Premiership is a concern.

Hodgson can’t count on the versatile Phil Jones either, not with the Man United player seemingly incapable of staying fit for more than a few matches in a row.

The left-back slot poses another challenge.

It is optimistic at this point to suggest that Man United’s Luke Shaw can get himself back in peak condition in France, considering he has yet to play a game since suffering a double-leg fracture last September and won’t train until next month.

FRIENDLIES TO GAUGE

For now, against Germany, Hodgson must choose between Southampton’s Ryan Bertrand and Tottenham’s Danny Rose, who has yet to pick up a senior cap.

On the right flank, Nathaniel Clyne has been one of Liverpool’s most impressive performers this season and is the one bright spot for Hodgson in a department where there is precious little cause for optimism.

Kyle Walker could get a chance to prove his worth, considering he’s a regular starter in a Spurs side challenging for the Premiership crown.

Germany, then Holland next week, will help to provide England with some answers.

Germany coach Joachim Loew seems to think that England are one of the favourites to lift the Euro 2016 crown.

Perhaps the mind games have begun, because Hodgson will know that the current England defence will have to improve by a couple of notches at least, to be contenders in France in June.

garylim@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on March 24, 2016.
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Friday, March 25, 2016 – 02:00
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