By George Ankers
Four months since their last match, England have assembled to take on Denmark in their final friendly outing before Roy Hodgson names his squad for World Cup 2014.
With the tournament now firmly in sight, the runners and riders are beginning to be sorted out as the 30-man party picked for Wednesday's game give the biggest clues yet about where the Three Lions boss will go in the summer.
Though Hodgson insists that there is still time for those not included to make a bid for a ticket to Brazil, the final 23 is clearly taking shape. Goal looks at the state of play...
|ON THE PLANE
|Joe Hart (Manchester City)
Glen Johnson (Liverpool)
Kyle Walker (Tottenham)
Phil Jagielka (Everton)
Gary Cahill (Chelsea)
Leighton Baines (Everton)
Frank Lampard (Chelsea)
Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)
Michael Carrick (Manchester United)
Jack Wilshere (Arsenal)
Andros Townsend (Tottenham)
Danny Welbeck (Manchester United)
Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool)
Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
OUT: Theo Walcott (Arsenal)
Perhaps the man who gains the most from Walcott's loss is Andros Townsend. The Tottenham winger has dropped off ever since his explosive arrival to the national team and might have been at risk of losing his newly won place in the squad but, with one pacy wide forward out, Hodgson will probably take the gamble on the youngster being able to repeat the impact of his debut.
Otherwise, it is business as usual. Manchester City's Joe Hart remains the clear No.1 in goal, having completely cemented his place at the Etihad Stadium after that early-season wobble. No other keeper has come close to making a case for dropping him.
In defence, obvious choices remain. Kyle Walker and Glen Johnson look set to duke it out for the right-back spot right up until the Italy game kicks off, while Leighton Baines is now Hodgson's clear favourite for the left-back berth.
With spurious talk of a John Terry comeback firmly put to bed, the England boss made plain his conviction in the pairing of Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill at centre-back. Jagielka is not available for the Denmark game but, as long as both are fit come summer, they will be first choice.
Steven Gerrard's recent successes in a deeper midfield role for Liverpool will have encouraged Hodgson greatly as he watches his captain, while Frank Lampard still looks very much set to bow out at international level as an automatic World Cup pick.
The quality offered by Michael Carrick and Jack Wilshere, meanwhile, remains obvious. Neither midfielder will be losing any sleep about their places on the plane.
Up front, Daniel Sturridge has only continued his magnificent form and now demands to start for England in the summer. That will almost certainly be alongside Wayne Rooney, whose focus will all be on England now that his future at Manchester United is nailed down. Danny Welbeck, too, remains a Hodgson favourite and shows no signs of form disastrous enough to play his way off the plane.
|DOWN: Ashley Cole (Chelsea)
John Ruddy (Norwich City)
Fraser Forster (Celtic)
Phil Jones (Manchester United)
Chris Smalling (Manchester United)
Tom Cleverley (Manchester United)
Jordan Henderson (Liverpool)
James Milner (Manchester City)
Adam Lallana (Southampton)
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal)
Jermain Defoe (Tottenham)
Rickie Lambert (Southampton)
UP: Luke Shaw (Southampton)
UP: Raheem Sterling (Liverpool)
UP: Jay Rodriguez (Southampton)
However, despite Shaw's excellence at club level - he will surely fight Baines to be No.1 from August onwards - one game does not offer a lot of time for a young defender to acclimatise. Most likely is that the 18-year-old is merely being groomed for that autumn call so as to make the transition smoother but he will still sense an opportunity to usurp Cole.
In goal, all four primary candidates for the three available places are being watched this week but John Ruddy and Fraser Forster are nominally more likely for having been selected for previous squads.
Despite Jagielka's injury, Hodgson plainly does not see many options at centre-back. Chris Smalling is becoming a regular squad player in the current regime and should get a chance from the start against Denmark, while the fact that only three central defenders were summoned suggests that Phil Jones - also unavailable for Wednesday - still has a real shout. In a tournament in which backup defenders are often not used enough to justify their selection, his midfield versatility could be telling.
There could be quite a fight brewing in midfield, however, and Denmark could prove a crucial fixture for the futures of Tom Cleverley and Jordan Henderson. The former has been a regular under Hodgson but is a controversial selection for his consistently unspectacular form in a consistently unspectacular Manchester United side. Henderson, meanwhile, has excelled for Liverpool and is gradually building an inarguable case for inclusion.
|England Betting Special|
|5/4||"Considering Raheem Sterling's integral role in a rampant Liverpool side recently, the 19-year-old is well worth backing at 5/4 (2.25) to make the final squad"|
A bright return from injury has seen Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain star for Arsenal and the 20-year-old, something of a gamble from Hodgson at Euro 2012, will be hopeful of impressing upon reintegration into the squad.
He is among several fighting for that vacated Walcott space, though, and faces perhaps his sternest competition from Raheem Sterling. The 19-year-old has been in electrifying form for Liverpool and convincingly muscled his way in to the Denmark party. He deserves an opportunity to show himself off on Wednesday and could go a long way towards furthering his cause.
Up front, a continued lack of competition is evidenced by Jermain Defoe's inclusion despite his switch to a lower level of football with Toronto FC. He, plus Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez, both still impressive for Southampton, is right in the fight - all three could go depending on how Hodgson chooses to balance his squad.
|DOWN: Kieran Gibbs (Arsenal)
DOWN: Aaron Lennon (Tottenham)
Ben Foster (West Brom)
Nathaniel Clyne (Southampton)
Steven Caulker (Cardiff City)
Gareth Barry (Everton)
James Ward-Prowse (Southampton)
Ross Barkley (Everton)
Wilfried Zaha (Cardiff City)
Tom Ince (Crystal Palace)
Ashley Young (Manchester United)
Andy Carroll (West Ham)
NEW ENTRY: Adam Johnson (Sunderland)
Similarly, Aaron Lennon has a reasonable amount of experience and remains a valid backup for Hodgson but, with so many young players doing well in his position, the Tottenham winger is now firmly behind in the race to make the squad.
Ben Foster has a chance to impress Hodgson this week and could conceivably replace any of Hart's other deputies, while Everton youngster Ross Barkley is again in the friendly squad. The midfielder has not let himself down in his first international appearances but the form of the likes of Sterling and Lallana may squeeze him out this summer - his time, however, will surely come soon.
A slightly unexpected member of the party for Wednesday is Steven Caulker. The Cardiff City man has not featured since scoring on his England debut against Sweden but, as one of only three summoned centre-backs, looks likelier than several more veteran figures to figure in the final reckoning.
Elsewhere, it is a mix of hopeful youth and in-a-pinch experienced options. Gareth Barry was namechecked by the England manager as being unlucky to miss out this time but realistically needs a Gerrard or Carrick to become unavailable to be handed a return, while Ashley Young could be one of the first wingers recalled in the event of an injury crisis.
He is likely behind Adam Johnson in the pecking order, though, with the Sunderland star's blistering recent form running it close for an international recall. There also remains peripheral interest from Under-21s regular Tom Ince, taking his Premier League chance brightly with Crystal Palace, and Cardiff City loanee Wilfried Zaha, though Brazil probably comes too early for either.
Likewise for another Southampton pair. James Ward-Prowse offers vast promise and surprising maturity in midfield but likely lacks the minutes to be a viable outside runner. Meanwhile, right-back Nathaniel Clyne's increasingly tough battle with Calum Chambers (who himself could push for senior recognition before long) for a first-team place looks to have scuppered any real chance of overtaking Walker or Johnson.
Andy Carroll at West Ham remains the only serious outsider for a forward berth but has not outshone Lambert since returning from injury and looks to have lost the target-man race for the time being.
|GIVING UP HOPE
|DOWN: Robert Green (QPR)
DOWN: Joleon Lescott (Manchester City)
DOWN: Michael Dawson (Tottenham)
DOWN: Ryan Shawcross (Stoke City)
DOWN: Michael Keane (Manchester United)
DOWN: Matt Lowton (Aston Villa)
DOWN: Jack Rodwell (Manchester City)
DOWN: Ravel Morrison (West Ham)
DOWN: Nathan Redmond (Norwich City)
DOWN: Saido Berahino (West Brom)
QPR goalkeeper Rob Green is one, with those three places sure to be chosen from the four called up for Wednesday.
Old hands Michael Dawson and Joleon Lescott might have been potential choices as fourth centre-back this summer but the presence of only three such defenders in a 30-man party for Denmark surely spells the end for their hopes of a recall, while Ryan Shawcross and Under-21s international Michael Keane have simply run out of time to press their cases.
An underwhelming follow-up to an excellent first season in the Premier League mean that Aston Villa's Matt Lowton will not be given a chance in 2014, with Clyne - at the very least - more likely backup. Meanwhile, a lack of game time has almost certainly ended Jack Rodwell's hopes.
There had been excited talk of a run from Ravel Morrison as a luxury option for Brazil but the West Ham youngster has gone off the boil to such an extent that he has been loaned to QPR in the Championship. He may yet show off those incredible skills for England but there will surely not be any bold gambles from Hodgson on that front this summer.
Finally, his fellow Under-21s starlets, Nathan Redmond and Saido Berahino, have simply not offered enough on a regular basis at club level to become genuine outsider options for the World Cup. Developing into candidates for Euro 2016 will have to become their focus.
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