Roy Hodgson’s starting XI against Italy – combinations and permutations

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In the weathered hands of England manager Roy Hodgson rests a seemingly infinite number of combinations and permutations from which to pluck a starting XI for the World Cup opener against Italy on Saturday.

Attack is where the discrepancy lives. Joe Hart will start in goal, Leighton Baines, Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Glen Johnson will be the starting back four, and Steven Gerrard has locked down one of the central midfield spots.

That much we know. But from there on forward, things get sticky.

The general issue is whether Hodgson will go aggressive and deploy a diamond midfield behind two strikers or whether he’ll opt for the balance of a 4-2-3-1, utilizing two holding players behind three attacking midfielders and a lone striker. But formation is only one component of Hodgson’s prescription. A considerably larger concern is one of personnel and with a number of talented young stallions at his disposal, the England manager has some very difficult decisions to make.

So let’s take a look at a few different setups Hodgson has available to roll out against the Azzurri.

THE TASTE OF LIVERPOOL

The most talked about formation for England, the 4-4-2 diamond midfield, happens to be the same shape Liverpool used to claim second place in the past season’s Premier League. Brendan Rodgers perfected this setup with a rotating group of midfielders but always present in the bunch was Gerrard, at the fulcrum, and Raheem Sterling, in any one of the three advanced roles. Proving himself capable of opening defenses up from the left or right side, Sterling’s game rose to a new level late in the season when Rodgers inserted him into the center of the pitch where his quickness and evasive nature proved too much for stiff-legged central defenders.

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Adam Lallana looks poised to exchange his Southampton shirt for a Liverpool kit.

Another key to the diamond midfield is balance, which is achieved through utilizing fit outside midfielders who have no issue playing both sides of the ball. And there’s no better man for that job than Jordan Henderson, who makes 90 minutes of sprinting look like a walk in the park.

A fellow Liverpool player, Henderson has an intimate understanding of Gerrard and Sterling as well as how to correctly use the diamond shape to his advantage. Henderson’s ability to drop deep, at times even alongside Gerrard, allows Hodgson to select a fourth member of the midfield with slightly more aggressive tendencies.

And who better for that role than Adam Lallana, the $34-42M transfer target of Liverpool, who looks primed to join the Reds by the end of July? The 26-year-old excelled on the left side for Southampton this past year, is not opposed to running himself ragged for 70 odd minutes and provides devastating trickery to compliment that of Sterling.

Opting for a four man midfield with Liverpool connections may feel biased but it’s a proven commodity that sparks goals. Factor in the Daniel Sturridge connection up top and this feels like a balanced yet aggressive lineup for Hodgson to utilize in the event he truly desires to take the game to Italy.

THE (ROONEY-LESS?) YOUTH BLITZ

If Hodgson really wants to throw a curveball at Italy he’ll unleash the youth, likely in a 4-2-3-1, which provides a bit more protection than the diamond. The youth setup would partner 22-year-old Jack Wilshere alongside Gerrard in what would be a clever pivot. Wilshere’s love for the tackle compliments that of Gerrard while the Arsenal man’s knack for creating off-the-dribble would provide a key link between the attacking midfielders and the striker.

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Many pundits feel Wayne Rooney’s starting spot could be in jeopardy. Will Hodgson pull the plug?

In front of Gerrard and Wilshere would be 19-year-old Sterling on the left wing, 20-year-old Ross Barkley in the central attacking role and, ideally, 20-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right wing. The obvious issue currently facing this system is that Oxlade-Chamberlain is nursing a knee issue that may keep him out against Italy. While his speed and two directional play would devastate and provide balance to this shape he’d be well deputized by Henderson or Danny Welbeck, who would then swap sides with Sterling.

One downside of a youth blitz in a 4-2-3-1 is that Wayne Rooney may be the odd man out. It’s a predicament many pundits believe Hodgson may be inclined to move forward with given the United man’s sub-par Premier League season and poor World Cup history. That said, charging forward without Rooney in the starting lineup feels like a titanic miss and one that Hodgson would be wise to avoid risking. Instead, Hodgson could push forward with a youth blitz and Rooney, who could partner with Sturridge in front of a diamond midfield made up of Gerrard, Sterling, Barkley and Ox/Henderson/Welbeck/Wilshere.

Regardless of using a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 diamond, the key to the youth blitz would be giving England fans that which they fiend for the most: Sterling alongside Barkley in what would be a freakishly athletic, skillful and audacious pair that few opposing defenses, including the Italians, would be equipped to handle.

THE RUNNING MAN

As we know by now, heat and humidity will play a large role in this World Cup meaning many a match will come down to a battle of the fittest. And no venue will provide a greater challenge of the conditions than the sweltering jungle of Manaus, where England faces Italy. To hedge against those conditions, don’t be surprised if Hodgson opts for an attacking group of running men, which means James Milner becomes a real possibility to start.

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James Milner’s third lung may be enough to get him into Roy Hodgson’s starting XI.

The City man is as fit as the come. Inserting him on the right side along with Gerrard in the fulcrum, the inexhaustible Henderson on the left, and Sterling at the point of a diamond midfield could prove a very wise play.

If Hodgson opts for a 4-2-3-1, Rooney could drop into the attacking midfield role, Sterling to the bench and Wilshere alongside Gerrard.

It’s a lineup that would allow England to put Italy under pressure and bring veteran leadership into the side. While not the most exciting play, Milner’s work rate could break down Italy’s left side for a sub like Sterling or Oxlade-Chamberlain to then capitalize.

THE OLD GUARD

The most conservative and downright uninspiring attack Hodgson could play would be to pair Gerrard with Milner and Frank Lampard.

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Frank Lampard can play a role for England in the World Cup, hopefully just not as a starter.

Whether in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 and regardless of who is played on the left side, such a lineup would reek of a lack of ambition and spell doom for England.

Fortunately, while such a makeup could have been foreseeable under Fabio Capello’s tenure as manager, it seems unlikely that Hodgson would revert to such a level of conservative tactics. There is a freshness about this England squad that is just begging to be unleashed on the world.

What better stage to make it happen than to kickoff Brazil 2014?

 

 

 

“Proud” hat trick hero Kane raves at shorthanded Spurs win

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This could’ve gone much worse for Spurs.

Dele Alli and Jan Vertonghen were suspended, and Christian Eriksen was sick.

[ RECAP: APOEL 0-3 Spurs ]

Never mind all that: Harry Kane was healthy, and scored three goals as Spurs kept pace with group mates Real Madrid in filing a 3-0 win at APOEL Nicosia in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday.

Kane said he was very proud of the side’s performance, as youngster Anthony Georgiou and seldom-used Georges-Kevin N’Koudou put in shifts in the win. From the BBC:

“We weren’t pleased with the first-half and a couple of chances could have gone the other way. We were more clinical and in the Champions League that is what you have got to be.

“We are missing a few players but the lads who stepped in were fantastic. We have a solid squad and you have to be ready. 3-0 away in the Champions League no matter who you play is a good result.”

Kane has 11 goals in September between club and country, and has six hat tricks in 2017. There may not be a finer big striker firing in Europe right now, and both England and Spurs will hope to ride him well into 2018.

Spartak Moscow 1-1 Liverpool: Frustrated Reds come back for point

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A point from far from home is not the end of the world, but Liverpool will rue its missed chances in a 1-1 draw at Spartak Moscow in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday.

Goalkeeper Artyom Rebrov had a stellar day for Spartak before being injured and then replaced by Aleksandr Selikhov, who was also strong for the Russians.

Fernando (not that one) scored a free kick for Spartak, while Philippe Coutinho bagged the equalizer that keeps the Reds ahead of Spartak on goal difference. Both sides are three points behind Sevilla.

Liverpool visits Maribor on Oct. 17, while Spartak will host Sevilla.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]  

Roberto Firmino saw a promising header saved, and Brazilian attack partner Philippe Coutinho cleared a launch pad for countryman Fernando with a needless foul minutes later.

The 25-year-old ex-Sampdoria man that curled a free kick over the wall, and not too near to a post. Loris Karius was too slow to move, and the ball found its way to the back of the net. 1-0.

Sadio Mane was lively as usual, and let fly with a low drive for Spartak backstop Rebrov to collect inside the six.

Coutinho made amends with a solidly struck equalizer just after the half-hour mark, working a 1-2 with Mane and lacing a shot beyond the hopes of Rebrov.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Spartak wasn’t sleeping to start the second half, and both Karius and his Russian counterpart Rebrov had work to do early.

Rebrov needed to be substituted following a collision with Mohamed Salah and long delay. A Man of the Match candidate, would the goalkeeper swap tilt the scales?

Manchester City 2-0 Shakhtar Donetsk: KDB pulls the strings

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A Man of the Match performance from Kevin De Bruyne was just enough to send Man City past plucky Shakhtar Donetsk 2-0 at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday.

David Silva assisted De Bruyne’s second half goal, and Bernardo Silva set up Raheem Sterling for the second just before time.

Alone in first, City will host Napoli on Oct. 17 while Shakhtar is off to Feyenoord.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]  

Kevin De Bruyne set Sergio Aguero up for a chance that was well-covered by Shakhtar backstop Andriy Pyatov.

De Bruyne had the best chance of the first half, working himself into a “Surely” position only to miss his mark with a shot and leave the match scoreless.

At the other end, Ederson made an excellent save on Marlos.

Fittingly, De Bruyne helped set himself up for the opener, winning the ball and working a 1-2 with David Silva to finish with style.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Leroy Sane won a penalty for City, but Sergio Aguero’s tame effort was saved. At the other end, John Stones was directing traffic when a ball hit his arm. No call from the officials.

APOEL Nicosia 0-3 Tottenham Hotspur: Kane nets hat trick

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Cyprus has been kind to Harry Kane.

The English striker scored thrice for Spurs, who join group mates Real Madrid on six points after a 3-0 win at APOEL Nicosia in UEFA Champions League action on Tuesday.

The Bernabeu is next for Spurs, an Oct. 17 date with 2-0 Real Madrid, while APOEL will host Borussia Dortmund.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]  

Hugo Lloris flubbed an early clearance and was fortunate to see the back-bounding ball dribble wide of his left post.

Carlao could’ve given APOEL a surprise lead close to halftime but headed wide of the net from within 10 yards.

Kane nearly added an assist to his ledger at the start of the second half, but Son Heung-min just missed his effort wide of the frame.

He scored another goal anyway, and another one. Moussa Sissoko set Kane up for the second of the night, a relatively simple finish for the striker, and Kane completed his trio of goals when he headed Kieran Trippier‘s cross home.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]