By Richard Jolly
The best thing Danny Welbeck did was to decide not to touch the ball. That may seem a criticism of a footballer who does not always exhibit the finesse to complement his physicality. In this instance, it is a compliment: seconds before thunder stopped play in Miami, Welbeck had the awareness to dummy when Wayne Rooney passed infield, affording Daniel Sturridge a glorious chance that the Liverpool striker missed.
It hinted at his allure to Roy Hodgson. Welbeck’s unselfishness tends to make him a favourite of many a manager, if not a wider audience. He needs to appeal to an electorate of one. If 10 players are pencilled in to face Italy, the sense is that Welbeck is the most vulnerable of the 11 who began against both Peru and Honduras.
The indications that two weeks with his players and three friendlies have done little to change Hodgson’s thinking. Welbeck, the man in possession of a spot, will probably start in Manaus. In his final opportunity, he produced a typical Welbeck performance, which is to say that he expended plenty of energy and did not score.
|7/2||Danny Welbeck is 7/2 with Bet365 to score against Italy|
Welbeck’s eager running helps to stretch defences – and a beaten Brayan Beckeles earned the first of his two bookings for a particularly ugly lunge at the Mancunian – but his evening was marred by misplaced passes. The defter touches came from Lallana. The Southampton captain showed why there is no debate about his place.
It is as well for Welbeck that the decision will not be made democratically. He is unlikely to win the popular vote: not when Raheem Sterling offers more excitement or, indeed, when many would happily see the precocious Ross Barkley granted his chance, even if it meant moving Rooney to the left. His was the sort of performance that will not bring too many converts to his cause but nor will it persuade his advocates to desert their man. Significantly, Hodgson is a loyalist.
Welbeck has benefited from two strokes of luck, too. Sterling’s dismissal against Ecuador and subsequent suspension limited him to 38 minutes of action in the build-up (and only Fraser Forster has had less); much as the teenager has been praised for his efforts in training and Hodgson has been at pains to say that his red card will not count against him, it has hindered his case. Then, just as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was suggesting that he could bring dynamism and directness on the flanks, he was injured against Ecuador. He will not recover in time for the opening match.
While Barkley’s sparkling cameo showcased his abundant potential – Rio Ferdinand, for one, was gushing about the midfielder’s gifts – Hodgson can be a voice of caution and conservatism, seeing the Evertonian’s inexperience when others are excited about his talent. At the comparatively tender age of 23, Welbeck has come to represent the conservative choice, the man who can be trusted to track back and support his left-back and cover many a mile in his earnest endeavours.
In one respect, friendlies aren’t his metier. They are occasions when flashier talents catch the eye. Instead, the forward who doubles up as a defender, the blend of industry and power that is Welbeck has forged a reputation as a big-game player on the European stage in the last couple of seasons. Both Real Madrid and Bayern Munich struggled to cope with him. Sterling and Barkley, each yet to make his Champions League debut, cannot say the same.
So any decision between the Welbeck and the two men from Merseyside clubs may be the known against the unknown, the safer option versus the riskier choice that could bring a greater reward. The chances are that Hodgson will plump for the more dependable man. The odds are that the footballing public would bench Welbeck. They would pick someone who would excel on the ball, not off it.