by Henry Winter
Wayne Rooney will be England’s “ace in the hole” when he returns from suspension, according to Roy Hodgson, who wants an improvement “in the final third”.
As well as the need for more attacking guile,England’s manager voiced his concerns on Tuesday over whether thirty somethings such as Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker can play every four days. Both midfielders did well during the 1-1 draw with France on Monday, particularly Parker, but he is still regaining sharpness after his Achilles injury while Gerrard has to manage a long-term back condition.
Gerrard recovered from his France exertions by relaxing in the pool at the Hotel Stary here on Tuesday while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joe Hart engaged in some head tennis elsewhere in pool. Some of the XI who started against France also went in the gym, working out gently on bikes. The Football Association reported no injury worries picked up in Donetsk.
Hodgson admitted it would be hard to change his team against Sweden in Kiev on Friday or they would have him “up against the wall”. Ashley Young is expected to continue as the link man between midfield and Danny Welbeck in Kiev before shifting left against Ukraine when a certain No 10 returns.
“Our real ace in the hole should be Wayne Rooney because he is very fit and raring to go,” said Hodgson. “He really can’t wait to get on the field and if he can play like Wayne Rooney, then we’re going to be a bit more difficult to beat for some of these teams because you can only benefit from having someone of his quality in your team.”
Rooney’s return will be timely. For all Welbeck’s outstanding front-running against France, England were short of some cunning and composure.
“It’s in the final third,” replied Hodgson when asked where he would like to see improvement. “Once or twice, especially in the first half, there were some very promising counter-attacks and they broke down because we tried a one-touch pass to finish it off rather than taking that extra touch.
“The French were just the opposite. They don’t play a lot of one-touch football around the penalty box. They play a lot of two, three touches, holding on to the ball and asking another question. Sometimes we want to try and finish it off too quickly. That’s because of the intensity of the Premier League.
“You must remember we had Ashley Young, who hasn’t always played that position, and Danny Welbeck, who is 21 and did really well. You’ve got to make allowances for the fact that they had Karim Benzema, who is much older and playing for Real Madrid, and Samir Nasri. You can expect a bit more from them when they get in the final third than I can expect from our players at the moment.
“Glen Johnson made some good raiding runs down the right. The pass and the movement for James Milner’s chance was the type of thing we are looking for. That was a really good attack. A few other attacks foundered on the fact that we didn’t quite get the last pass right. We must make allowance for the fact that everyone was quite nervous going into the game.’’
More nerves are seizing the Swedes, following their defeat to Ukraine. They are reported to be concerned about Andy Carroll battering their defenders, although Welbeck’s work-rate and runs could also trouble Olof Mellberg and Andreas Granqvist.
“Welbeck was very good against France,” continued Hodgson. “He deserved to start the game. But I like Andy Carroll.” Hodgson said Carroll’s performance in the 1-0 win over Norway in Oslo “made a big impression on me and I wouldn’t hesitate to play him, just as I wouldn’t hesitate to play Jermain Defoe”.
Six of the starting XI – Hart, Parker, Joleon Lescott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Young, Welbeck – were making their tournament debuts. Two of the three subs, Theo Walcott and Jordan Henderson, were also experiencing tournament combat for the first time. “We’ve shown we can handle difficult conditions, that we could go out and play against a France team of that quality, come away with a good result which we deserved,’’ added Hodgson.
In midfield, Hodgson knows he has an issue of whether he can ask Gerrard and Parker to start every four days. “That’s the big question. Those two are both over 30, they both had to work really, really hard against France. I’m sure I’m not going to be the only coach wondering ‘can they do it every four days?’ But this is what tournament football is about. If they start to show signs of fatigue we make certain people like Jordan Henderson, James Milner if he’s moved in there, Phil Jones or Phil Jagielka, are ready to go in there and do exactly the same job. That’s something we have to work on.
“My gut feeling, if we have a good recovery day on Tuesday, a sensible training day on Wednesday and sensible recovery day on Thursday, we’re going to make it very hard for people to leave them out. If we said ‘we’re going to give you a rest because it’s too much to play two games in four days’ some of them would have us up against the wall!
“I felt happy after the game – and I was entitled to be. I’m very much aware that the happiness could turn to sadness very quickly. We have another big game on Friday, that will be another tough one.’’