San Marino vs. England: Players to Watch in World Cup Qualifier

England Captain Steven Gerrard (Google Creative Commons)

England head to San Marino on Friday, keen to keep pace with Group H rivals and next week’s opponents Montenegro. Though unlikely to provide a stern test, Roy Hodgson and his men would me smart not to overlook San Marino—so as to avoid an upset, but also to get in the best preparation possible for the big game that follows.

Here are three England players likely to be involved, all of whom have big roles to play over the coming week.

Joleon Lescott

Lescott’s 2011-12 was about as good a campaign as he could have hoped for. A regular in the Manchester City team that won the Premier League, he followed that up as an ever-present in defense for England’s Euro 2012 campaign.

This season, thus far at least, has not been so happy. Injuries and his falling out of favor with Roberto Mancini have seen Lescott’s appearances limited, leaving the center-back a frustrated bystander as City’s title defense has crumbled.

International football has been a saving grace. Hodgson has, and is continuing to, stick by Lescott. Admittedly the manager does not have the luxury of doing otherwise, but nor has he had a major reason not to keep him in mind for selection.

Lescott is not guaranteed to start against San Marino (and in all likelihood, then Montenegro) but he would seem a sensible choice in the absence of experience in the squad’s other central defenders. Friday night’s game gives Hodgson a chance to see how Lescott, as one of the team’s senior players, conducts himself in maintaining organization and concentration at the back.

San Marino may not severely test this, but with the Montenegrins posting a greater challenge, it is important to establish some understanding among those who play.

Steven Gerrard

Gerrard has been one of the main beneficiaries of the Hodgson era thus far. The Liverpool midfielder has excelled as captain, asserting his stature so synonymous with his role as his club’s skipper within the national team setup.

That Gerrard would do so was not always a given. Performing for England did not come as naturally as it did for Liverpool. With age, the now 32-year-old seems to have found his footing amidst the regular upheaval, and become a genuinely influential presence.

At Euro 2012, Gerrard was the heart of the team and responded with displays of the utmost effort and dedication. Since that tournament he has ceded a little of that responsibility to the emerging Jack Wilshere and others, but with the Arsenal man injured for these upcoming games, there will be a greater onus on Gerrard to set the tone once again.

Against San Marino it will primarily be a case of ensuring his team keep at it, even if the goals do not come instantly. Yet, though the three points are most important, a confident display from Gerrard and co. would do them the world of good heading into Tuesday’s vital qualifier.

Danny Welbeck

Similar to Lescott, national team duty has been a welcome break for Welbeck from his present reality at club level. The Manchester United striker has seen more valuable involvement than that of his cross-city rival. Mostly though, he has had to watch on as Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Robin van Persie have generally grabbed the goalscoring glory.

Hodgson has persevered with Welbeck. He will be concerned though, at the player’s development being stunted by a lack of opportunity at United. Still, he knows the 22-year-old is a useful enough performer regardless (for the time being anyway).

San Marino will make it hard for Welbeck in their attempts to restrict his space to manoeuvre. It will be a useful exercise for the young forward to find ways of escaping such traps, and then finishing or linking up intelligently thereafter.

Finding that rhythm and engineering himself a confidence boost at the same time would be a good night’s work for Welbeck. England will need him swaggering and footloose in the face of a tougher, more stifling Montenegro defense next week.

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