• San Marino v England

England must avoid San Marino banana skin

ESPN staff
March 22, 2013
Wayne Rooney will be the focal point of England's attack © PA Photos

For a team with the lofty FIFA ranking of fourth, a match against bottom-ranked San Marino is the 'gimme' of international football. England have nothing to fear in Serravalle's Olympic Stadium except themselves and the risk of injury from some tough-tackling Sammarinese. As so often when England play, the build-up is about who is not playing rather than who is.

Rio Ferdinand was always unlikely to play in this game. It will be in Podgorica, Montenegro, where the Manchester United man's calm and experience might be missed. Ferdinand's withdrawal after days of a whispering campaign was the latest saga to prove clubs' grip on the fortunes of the international game. The special training regime would also seem to include some downtime, and even some punditry work in the Middle East on the very games he would have been playing in.

Despite the detente reached by Ferdinand making himself available for further fixtures, the chances of seeing Rio in Rio next summer, or even this, in June's friendly, are diminished to the point of extinction. It seems hugely unlikely that Ferdinand will ever play for England again. That Loftus Road afternoon in October 2011 when cross and unacceptable words were exchanged between John Terry and Anton Ferdinand has eventually robbed England of their two most experienced centre backs, the best of their generation. In their absence, Roy Hodgson must make do and mend.

With Gary Cahill resting his knee in the hope of being fit for Tuesday, plus Phil Jones, Phil Jagielka and Michael Dawson out too, Joleon Lescott, a player Manchester City are prepared to let go this summer, finds himself as England's most experienced central defender, with rookies Chris Smalling and Steven Caulker the options alongside him, unless Hodgson opts to play Michael Carrick as a libero. Full-backs Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson are to be the old heads ahead of Joe Hart, who now has a new deputy in Ben Foster, whose good relationship with Hodgson has led to him ending his exile from the international scene. Smalling's decent display against Brazil should hand him the nod, even though he has played as a central defender on only a handful of occasions for United in the last couple of seasons.

In February's friendly against Brazil, England were lifted by the presence of Jack Wilshere. Arsenal's tyro blended beautifully with Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney in particular. Good players like playing alongside good players and the trio flourished. Now, Wilshere is denied once more to England, and it is to be hoped his absence is brief. The warning signs from his previous injury have been heeded, and he must rest, though that will probably not include punditry on television in the Middle East. Tom Cleverley is likely to play in Wilshere's stead where he has often done well for England but never looked in the same class as his Arsenal friend.

The March range of international fixtures always arrive at a time when players are preoccupied. The Manchester United contingent have all shown signs of fatigue, while those at Chelsea and Tottenham have lengthy European campaigns in their legs too. That has closed down the options for Hodgson. Wayne Rooney, ahead of a return to Montenegro, where rashness cost him the first two games of Euro 2012, may fancy getting some goals into his locker to approach Michael Owen's 40 England goals that will now be the limit of the imminent retiree's achievements.

Montenegro will be on the mind throughout, as Tuesday looks the key fixture in deciding whether this is a campaign of cruise or struggle for Hodgson's team. Friday is a fixture that needs to be completed with minimum fuss.

San Marino player to watch: Andy Selva. The veteran 36-year-old striker is winding down his career in Serie D with Fidene after once playing for Hellas Verona. "The difference is ridiculous, it makes it really impossible but we have enormous dreams and want to avoid ridicule," Selva says of the challenge his country faces. Selva scored the winning goal in San Marino's only victory - versus Liechtenstein in 2004.

England player to watch: Michael Carrick. Roy Hodgson is hardly known for a wavering of tactics. However, a match against San Marino is one international fixture where experimentation is possible. With England expected to dominate possession - at Wembley they enjoyed 88.6% of it - then it might make sense for Carrick to play in central defence as a libero, in the same style that Ki Sung-Yeung did for Swansea in their one-sided victory in the League Cup final against Bradford, or Carrick himself did successfully on at least one occasion against Wigan on Boxing Day 2011. San Marino do not have a Marouane Fellaini.

Key Battle: Aldo Simonici v Wayne Rooney. A battle of two record-holders: Rooney may be England's youngest ever scorer but goalkeeper Simonici is part of the first ever pair of twins to have scored an own goal in the same international game. Central defender Davide Simonici will be trying to stop Rooney having a chance to shoot at his brother. Rooney has a point to prove, and at least he can say he is first-choice for England, unlike at his club these days. He must be hugely favoured to get the better of this battle.

Trivia: No San Marino v England preview is complete without mention of Davide Gualtieri's goal against Graham Taylor's goal in 1993 in 8.3 seconds, a record in qualifying for the FIFA World Cup. This is no exception. Gualtieiri now sells computer equipment.

Stats: San Marino coach and schoolteacher by day Giampaolo Mazza has presided over 75 defeats in 78 games since taking the helm in 1998.

Odds: Bet365 can hardly be taking much money on this game, unless in the score prediction market. San Marino are 100/1, the draw is a mighty 33/1 and England are 1/100 to win. Place your bets.

Prediction: San Marino 0-4 England: Rooney hat-trick.

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