By George Ankers
It's do-or-die time for England as they take on Montenegro and Poland at Wembley with the chance to secure qualification for World Cup 2014.
Topping Group H by one point going into their final two matches, the Three Lions stand a good chance of holding off the challenges of their opponents, and second-placed Ukraine, to reach Brazil, which would give Roy Hodgson eight months to experiment and evaluate in friendlies before settling on his summer squad.
With only two competitive games left until the party hits Rio, Goal brings you the second edition of the Hodgson Index, charting the state of the manager's squad.
|ON THE PLANE
|Joe Hart (Manchester City)
Glen Johnson (Liverpool)
Kyle Walker (Tottenham)
Phil Jagielka (Everton)
Gary Cahill (Chelsea)
Ashley Cole (Chelsea)
Leighton Baines (Everton)
Frank Lampard (Chelsea)
Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)
Jack Wilshere (Arsenal)
Theo Walcott (Arsenal)
Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool)
Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
Danny Welbeck (Manchester United)
Joe Hart has been under the most scrutiny, with high-profile errors against Bayern Munich continuing a growing line of mistakes, but the national boss is insistent that he remains No.1.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's never let me or the team down in the time I've worked with him so I have every confidence, every faith in him that he will put it behind him," Hodgson told the press, and it does seem unthinkable that the Manchester City keeper could fall so far down the pecking order by June so as to miss out on a ticket to Brazil.
Though Ashley Cole will miss the final qualifiers with a rib injury, the Chelsea veteran is still a lock to compete with Leighton Baines for the left-back spot, while Glen Johnson and Kyle Walker are set for the right-back berths. Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill are undisputed first choices at centre-back.
In midfield, the experience of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard remains highly valued by Hodgson for such crucial games and they will be joined by Jack Wilshere.
The Arsenal star has caused more than one stir already in October but there is no sign of either a stray cigarette or any clumsily worded sporting politics affecting his chances on the pitch. Along with club team-mate Theo Walcott, he will continue to be integral - if fit.
Though it would be astonishing, given his blistering domestic start and the lack of other options in his position, for Daniel Sturridge not to travel to Brazil, these matches represent huge opportunities for the Liverpool star. He has eight goals in nine games for the Reds and demands inclusion, but his integration into Hodgson's first XI will be under scrutiny, with much responsibility on his shoulders.
As ever, Wayne Rooney will be a key man, without question untouchable unless injury should interfere, while Danny Welbeck should get a chance to continue his international development at Wembley.
|John Ruddy (Norwich City)
Phil Jones (Manchester United)
Chris Smalling (Manchester United)
Michael Carrick (Manchester United)
Tom Cleverley (Manchester United)
James Milner (Manchester City)
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal)
Aaron Lennon (Tottenham)
Jermain Defoe (Tottenham)
Rickie Lambert (Southampton)
UP: Ross Barkley (Everton)
UP: Fraser Forster (Celtic)
Particularly under the spotlight will be Rickie Lambert. The Southampton striker has enjoyed an ecstatic welcome to the international spotlight and performed admirably with no support in Ukraine but, with Sturridge back in the reckoning, may be limited to a substitute role and need to replicate the impact that he made on debut against Scotland.
With Andy Carroll yet to return from injury, a good game or two under pressure could be vital in nailing down the Saints man's medium-term England future. He will be competing for minutes with Jermain Defoe, whose Europa League form at Tottenham has been encouraging, as the squeeze for forward places intensifies.
John Ruddy looks safe enough as Hart's deputy and more Champions League heroics from Celtic No.1 Fraser Forster look to have edged him ahead of Ben Foster as Hodgson's third goalkeeper. In front of them, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are retained as emerging centre-back options, despite the latter only having played two games so far in 2013-14.
In midfield, the likes of Michael Carrick, James Milner and Tom Cleverley all look reasonably established, with the latter perhaps most at risk of usurping.
It is a danger, thanks to the momentum displayed by Ross Barkley. Undaunted on debut against Moldova, the 19-year-old has excelled in the Everton first team and looks more and more like the real deal. Should England be up against it at Wembley, his youthful confidence would make him a tempting left-field option as substitute.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Lennon are not yet back with the squad – the former not back in action until November, the latter just returning to training – but their seniority means that it would take a blinding performance from a rival on Friday or Tuesday to have them looking over their shoulders.
|DOWN: Ashley Young (Manchester United)
Ben Foster (West Brom)
Matt Lowton (Aston Villa)
Luke Shaw (Southampton)
Steven Caulker (Cardiff City)
Ryan Shawcross (Stoke City)
Joleon Lescott (Manchester City)
Jack Rodwell (Manchester City)
Gareth Barry (Everton)
Adam Lallana (Southampton)
Andros Townsend (Tottenham)
Raheem Sterling (Liverpool)
Nathan Redmond (Norwich City)
Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United)
Andy Carroll (West Ham)
NEW ENTRY: Ravel Morrison (West Ham)
NEW ENTRY: Michael Dawson (Tottenham)
NEW ENTRY: Kieran Gibbs (Arsenal)
In his absence, plus those of the aforementioned injured midfielders, Andros Townsend of Spurs has a chance to make a serious push for continued selection. As the only out-and-out wide man in the party, there is a reasonable chance of game time, though the likes of Raheem Sterling, Nathan Redmond and Wilfried Zaha are likely to get more with the Under-21s.
Facing San Marino and Liechtenstein in Euro 2015 qualifying, Gareth Southgate's charges have an opportunity to prove their maturity – and none more so than first-time call-up Ravel Morrison.
The West Ham youngster's sensational goal against Tottenham on Sunday underlined his fine start to the season, seemingly putting his bad-boy days behind him and knuckling down. Impress with the youth side and continue to demonstrate his oft-devastating flair with the Hammers and there could yet be scope for an improbable run at the summer's touring team.
With Kieran Gibbs called up as cover for Cole, Southampton left-back Luke Shaw may find that 2014 comes too soon for a senior England role, but it will surely not be much further away than that. Along with club captain Adam Lallana, the 18-year-old has impressed in a revelatory start to the season for Mauricio Pochettino’s side.
The Saints' form has been built primarily on a rock-solid defence, something to which Michael Dawson will relate. Prior to Sunday's thumping by West Ham, the Spurs captain had led his men to concede only two goals in six league games, prompting some to press for an international recall.
He perhaps stands ahead of Ryan Shawcross and Steven Caulker, despite the latter in particular also starting the season well, though Joleon Lescott's greater experience may count more for Hodgson in a pinch.
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