Roy Hodgson has been dealt a blow in the run-up to England's two make-or-break Wembley games after the left-back Ashley Cole was ruled out with a rib injury.
The Chelsea player will definitely miss Friday's Montenegro game after being withdrawn 15 minutes from time against Norwich City at Carrow Road on Sunday. Cole, who has been replaced in the 23-man squad by Arsenal's Kieran Gibbs, will remain with his club for treatment and did not travel to St George's Park. After Sunday's match his manager, José Mourinho, said he had exacerbated a rib injury he had been carrying for some time but said then he expected Cole to be fit to play for his country.
Cole, who recently won his 105th cap and has remained Hodgson's first-choice left-back despite pressure from Everton's in-form Leighton Baines, underwent a scan at Chelsea's Cobham training ground on Monday. It is Baines who will replace Cole in Hodgson's starting line-up for the Montenegro game on Friday night. England then face Poland at Wembley the following Tuesday. Hodgson and players including Wayne Rooney have expressed their confidence that England can win both games and qualify automatically for next summer's World Cup in Brazil.
Arsenal's Theo Walcott, ruled out last month after undergoing abdominal surgery, was the other major absentee as the squad convened at St George's Park. After arriving on Monday, the squad had a light training session while those who played on Sunday did recovery work. The FA confirmed that tickets remained available for both matches.
Norwich City's John Ruddy, meanwhile, one of the few alternatives to the under-pressure Joe Hart in England's goal, has backed his Manchester City rival to retain the shirt and hailed him as one of the best in the world. Ruddy, who made a high-profile errorof his own during his club's 3-1 home defeat by Chelsea on Sunday, said he "felt sorry" for Hart, whose run of poor form has corresponded with an escalation in the volume of calls for alternatives to be considered for club and country.
"Without being too patronising, I felt sorry for him," the 26-year-old said. "I've been in situations before when people are questioning you. It's never nice.
"But I think from what he's done throughout the season – not just this season but the season before and before that and before that – he doesn't warrant that sort of attention. He's a top-drawer goalkeeper, one of the best in the world without a shadow of a doubt."
Ruddy, who was due to join up with Roy Hodgson's squad at St George's Park night, blamed the English media for putting too much pressure on the international side and building players up to knock them down. "It's the way the media is – you build people up so far and then chop their legs away when they get too high. That's the way the English media goes," he said. "Until that stops we might struggle to go anywhere in competitions."
Ruddy said that Hart deserved to retain the support of Hodgson, who reassured the Manchester City goalkeeper last week that he remained his No1 when naming his squad for the crucial Wembley qualifiers against Montenegro and Poland.
"Joe's the England No1. Rightly so. The way he's performed over the last few years he's deserved it and he's never let England down," said Ruddy, who said he disagreed with the widely held belief that is a lack of depth in the goalkeeping options available to Hodgson and pointed to Fraser Forster, Ben Foster, Jack Butland and Rob Green.
"In terms of myself I'm happy to be involved in the squad and I'm happy to be putting pressure on Joe," he added..
Ruddy said he expected belief among the squad to be high for two games that could end in automatic qualification, a play-off place or even elimination. "Every single time I've been away with the England squad it's been ultra-professional, a great group to be around and I'm sure this week will be no different," he said. "Although they're two massive games we all know what's at stake and we'll go into them with the belief that we'll come out of them with the results we need."