Originally, it all made perfect sense why England invited Portugal to be their final opponents before setting off for Euro 2016 and it all goes back to the fact Roy Hodgson’s team will encounter Gareth Bale in a couple of weeks and need to find a way to tie up the most expensive player on the planet.
“One of the things we thought about was that Cristiano Ronaldo is a very special player, a very special talent and an unbelievably influential figure for every team he has played for,” Hodgson said. “We were thinking Gareth Bale plays in a similar position for Wales. So when we picked Portugal we were not only thinking about their technical qualities, and the fact they are a very good football side, but also the fact they have a special individual.”
Unfortunately for England, the plan fell through and the head coach was explaining all this at roughly the same time as paparazzi shots were being sent around the world of Ronaldo sunbathing aboard a yacht in Ibiza wearing nothing but a tiny pair of shorts, sunglasses and a baseball cap turned the wrong way round. Yet it does speak volumes about how seriously England are taking the danger of Bale and it is also worth noting the Football Association also tried to arrange a friendly against Argentina so that Chris Smalling, John Stones et al could experience what it is like when Lionel Messi gets the ball and starts picking up speed.
Instead England’s latest assignment has a different look now Ronaldo has been given time off after Real Madrid’s triumph in the Champions League. Portugal never seem so daunting without the three-times Ballon d’Or winner and Hodgson will use the occasion to fine-tune his team for the game against Russia in Marseille a week on Saturday. Bale? He can wait for now.
England have other matters to deal with first. If Hodgson is serious about the prospect of shoehorning Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy into the same attack, the Portugal game, one imagines, will be the time to examine if it can work.
Hodgson has to decide whether the 4-3-3 system will suit his players best in France or whether they work better in a midfield diamond. Most of all, he has to get the right balance when, by his own admission, England have a “surfeit of attacking players, in midfield and up front, which is why I’ve chosen a squad that’s tipped towards attacking rather than defending”.
Hodgson acknowledges it is a calculated gamble but, if nothing else, he is at least giving the public what it wants – boldness – by selecting five strikers and it has also become apparent Marcus Rashford has already made a favourable impression, even discounting the goal against Australia last Friday that made him the youngest England player to score on his debut.
“I strongly believe he deserves his place in the squad,” Rooney said of his Manchester United team-mate. “His attitude is fantastic. He can be a dangerous player for us. He had a fantastic debut, scoring after two minutes. We can appreciate how tough the decision was for Roy to make but Marcus deserves to be here because of the way he’s played. He’s a strong-minded lad for an 18-year-old and he can certainly bring a lot of fear to defences.”
Rooney has set out to chaperone Rashford in the same way he remembers Steven Gerrard helping him during his own early England experiences. These are often unseen touches behind the scenes but their importance cannot be under-estimated in Hodgson’s eyes. Rooney was the only player the England manager would confirm starts against Portugal and it was also noteworthy Hodgson invited his captain to address the entire squad during a meeting at the team hotel on Tuesday evening. “Wayne stood up and gave them the benefit of his experience, telling them what to expect,” Hodgson said. “I’d given my introductory bit and I asked if he’d mind saying a few words. I knew the message would be powerful coming from him and he agreed straight away.”
Although it is not something they want to say publicly, for fear of being accused of falling into the same trap as previous tournaments, Hodgson and Rooney have both been talking to the players about going with the mentality to win the championship.
Steve Peters, the sports psychiatrist who has worked with Liverpool , will also be with the squad in France, just as he was for the World Cup, and he was also invited to speak to the players. “We don’t regard him as peripheral,” Hodgson said. “He’s there to help the players when they feel they need help and to make certain that on the occasions we’re discussing the philosophy of our tournament he can play a role.”
England’s warm-up programme has generally gone well – “I’ve liked a lot more than I’ve not liked,” Hodgson said – and it reflects the times, perhaps, that maybe the hardest question was about Kane taking corners. “I don’t need to apologise,” Hodgson batted back. “If you’ve got a player with his quality striking a ball and no one else in the team who comes up to that level, we’ll use him.”
Kane will carry on taking corners and Hodgson will continue thinking his team should opt for an attack-first policy. Don’t expect a goalless draw.
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