England return to action against African champions
After four months of off-field distractions its time for England to remind everyone they can play
England meet Egypt for the first time on home soil this evening with the hosts looking to use the match to build momentum going into the World Cup. They have met twice before, once in a friendly in Cairo in 1986, when the visitors triumphed 4-0, and again four years later when England edged out Egypt 1-0 in a World Cup pool match thanks to a goal from Mark Wright.
With England pooled with Algeria in the World Cup this summer (the two sides have never met), the Egypt friendly was arranged to give Fabio Capello's players an idea of the North African style of football. It's the style that helped Egypt beat Ghana 1-0 in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations in January, their third successive Cup success and their seventh in total.
Egypt are never easy to beat, they have a well-organised defence and a solid midfield, so new England skipper Steven Gerrard will have to ask his players to be patient as they strive to break down the visitors. Gerrard leads the side following John Terry's sacking last month and the unavailability through injury of Rio Ferdinand, and he described himself as "delighted" with the honour. He also called on the England side to put the recent scandal involving Terry to one side before tonight's match: "The players have a responsibility to forget about what's being written off the field and focus on what we can do on the pitch," said Gerrard. "We've done really well in qualification and I think [tonight] is a fantastic opportunity to show the fans and everyone around the world that we are still united and still a very strong team that has a good chance at the World Cup."
The 24-man squad looked sharp in training yesterday with Wayne Rooney showing no ill-effects from the knock he picked up during Sunday's Carling Cup Final. Now all that remains is for the players to leave off-field distractions behind them when they run out at Wembley. "The important thing is how the players perform on the pitch and not what happens outside," said Capello, adding: "We hope to play very well and we invite the fans to help us."
He likes what he's seen so far this week and believes the espirt de corps hasn't been affected by recent scandals. "You have to do training really focused because after four months it was really important to do that well. For me now I'm really happy because the spirit is something I remember we had in November."
For Capello the biggest selection conundrum for this evening surrounds the make-up of his back-four. England will be without three of their regular starting line-up – Ashley Cole (ankle), Rio Ferdinand (back) and Glenn Johnson (knee) – leaving only John Terry still standing. Wes Brown will start at right-back and the indications emerging from the England training camp yesterday were that Everton's Leighton Baines or Stephen Warnock of Aston Villa would get the nod at left-back. Doubtless, however, Capello will be generous with his substitutes as he tries out combinations in the pre-World Cup friendlies. So don't be surprised to see the likes of Matthew Upson, James Milner and Ryan Shawcross be given some game time.
There are also difficult decisions to be made about who wears the No1 jersey. Will it be David James, Rob Green or Joe Hart? Capello names his starting line-up later today but whoever he selects he expects them to be tested by Egypt, "It's not easy to win the African Nations Cup three times if you are not a good team," he said. "I watched Egypt's games and it is a really, really good team. They are dangerous, they are really well organised on the pitch who know what to do in every moment." ·
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