By Oliver Platt
One more to go. It is a daunting thought, but England and Roy Hodgson have just one further friendly match to complete before they walk out at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk on 11 June to face Laurent Blanc's France.
The result against Les Bleus will not be decisive in determining England's passage out of Group D – they still progressed to the quarter-final in 2004 despite losing their opening fixture to two late Zinedine Zidane goals – but it does represent Hodgson's biggest test of the opening stage and that is significant.
Fare badly and the confidence of a squad that is not entering this tournament at any sort of peak will be severely damaged.
Hodgson will not want to show Blanc too much of his hand in the clash with Belgium at Wembley on Saturday but neither does it seem ideal to enter Euro 2012 having only fielded what he considers his best XI on the training pitch.
"I'm not concerned that I need to play the team that will play against France," Hodgson insisted during his Friday press conference.
"But when I make the decision for that team against France, I want to have covered all the bases and know why I've chosen the players and what I'm looking for."
The 'back seven', consisting of the goalkeeper, four defenders and two central midfielders seems to be settled but questions persist as to the identity of those England will turn to for an attacking threat.
Joe Hart will play behind Glen Johnson, Gary Cahill, John Terry and Ashley Cole against Belgium, and that is unlikely to change in Ukraine. The injury to Kyle Walker and puzzling omission of Micah Richards has left Johnson as the obvious choice at right-back while Cahill's class on the ball and experience of playing with Terry pushed him ahead of Joleon Lescott.
In midfield, the injuries to Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard have left Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker as automatic choices. Hodgson might have hoped to experiment with Gerrard further up the field in the absence of the suspended Wayne Rooney but the Liverpool talisman will now be needed in a deeper role which will test his distribution and tactical discipline.
From there, things are less straightforward, with a concerning amount of dilemmas yet to be solved. The only almost certain inclusion in attack is Ashley Young, in the position he will again occupy behind the main striker against Belgium, and that will last only until Rooney returns for the final group match against Ukraine.
Young scored an excellent solo goal against Norway but otherwise England looked limited in attack in Hodgson's rigid 4-4-2 formation. The system's biggest virtue is its simplicity but it simply looks out of date at the top level. Certainly, a more subtle, nuanced approach will be required in the absence of Andy Carroll against Belgium, with Danny Welbeck starting in his place.
|"The 'back seven', consisting of the goalkeeper, four defenders & two central midfielders seems to be settled but questions persist as to who England will turn to for an attacking threat"|
Hodgson hinted at having more of a finalised idea of his starting line-up than his apparent experimentation suggests. "There is a good chance that some of the players who play against Belgium on Saturday will also be involved in the game against France," he revealed. "But a few players have put spanners in the works. It has given me something to think about."
Carroll, who finished the season robustly with Liverpool and combined with Young to good effect in Oslo, has staked a strong claim for a place in the team but Hodgson will be wary of selecting too static an attack given that the 64-year-old has so far plumped for the reliable James Milner ahead of the more explosive Theo Walcott.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could help with that balance if he can provide something of a counter-attacking threat similar to that which his fellow Southampton academy graduate is capable of on the left-hand side, but starting the 18-year-old over Stewart Downing against France, as uninspiring as the Liverpool winger has been, would be a brave decision on Hodgson's part.
Nine days, one match and an awful lot to deliberate over. A strong performance against a talented Belgium team would send England off to Poland and Ukraine on a high note but, perhaps more importantly, it might also answer some of the questions that Hodgson continues to contemplate.
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