Players old and new need to impress the manager against Chile with only two friendlies to follow before the squad is named
Originally the Football Association had tried to persuade Argentina to bring Lionel Messi to Wembley. Uruguay were the second choice only for that arrangement to be kiboshed because Luis Suárez and his international colleagues had the small matter of a World Cup play-off. Chile, already qualified for next summer's tournament, stepped in late on and there is no getting away from the fact the FA has not quite got the opposition it wanted as part of its 150th anniversary year.
Yet it is also true that Chile should be useful opponents, bearing in mind the importance of Roy Hodgson's team increasing their exposure to opponents from further afield. The World Cup is getting closer and Hodgson winced when he was reminded he would have only four more training sessions – two before Tuesday's game against Germany and two when Denmark visit Wembley next March – before he has to name his squad for Brazil. "You are depressing me," he said.
In other words we are getting to the stage at which Hodgson's experimentation has to be accompanied by some hard thinking. Frank Lampard, preparing to receive his golden cap, made the point that he did not regard himself as a mandatory pick and Ashley Cole, another Chelsea player with his own century of England appearances, has his own worries. If Cole was hoping Hodgson might reiterate the Chelsea left-back was still one of his first-choice players, as he has Joe Hart, the England manager actually went the other way, pointing out it was not just Leighton Baines threatening his position but Kieran Gibbs and Luke Shaw. Cole, he said, was a "potential English left-back", which is not a description he will have heard many times in the past 10 years.
Then there are Southampton's Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez, each assured of his first cap against Chile but with the considerable pressure of knowing they probably have to take this chance. "The rehearsals can be as good as you like but it's when they step on stage on the first night that it really counts," Hodgson said. "It's going to be a big night for them and unfortunately, if they do fail spectacularly and do really badly, it will be held against them."
He meant by the public, rather than himself, adding that he was not the type to "make draconian judgments if they don't have a particularly good game" but the clarification was not really needed. An undistinguished debut for either player could seriously inhibit his chances. Alternatively, if they can flourish in the way another Southampton player, Rickie Lambert, already has done, this is a good time to make a decent impression on the England manager.
The same goes for Ross Barkley, who may benefit from the fact Lambert will miss the Chile game through injury, opening the possibility of Wayne Rooney moving slightly further forward leaving the Everton teenager in competition with Tom Cleverley to play in the hole. "He's here on merit," Hodgson said of Barkley. "I know he's not played for Everton in the last couple of games but I watched him a lot in the beginning, when he was playing, and I think all Roberto Martínez is doing at the moment is giving him a slight breather. He is someone we definitely think a lot of and I certainly would not rule out the fact of him playing in either of the two games."
Lallana and Rodriguez will be the 51st and 52nd players Hodgson has used in his 19 months in the job. Fraser Forster will take that number to 53 if he deputises for Hart, though it cannot be guaranteed when Hodgson has previously had John Ruddy of Norwich City next in line. Both goalkeepers could potentially be used for 45 minutes each, whereas Hodgson intends to start with Baines in one match and Cole in another. Whoever gets the nod on Tuesday against Germany should probably take the greater encouragement.
This is new territory for Cole but hardly surprising given his omission from the last two Chelsea games and Baines's progress over the last couple of seasons. "I don't think he's lost form," Lampard said of his club colleague. "I think it's modern times at Chelsea and we all have to take it on the chin, being on the bench. It's not being dropped, it's about being patient. We all underperformed at Newcastle [the 2-0 defeat] and the manager said he could have dropped anyone. Leighton has got there on his performances but we're talking about Chelsea here. It's not easy for our manager to pick one player in any position for every game of the season."
Hodgson was also asked whether Cole had lost form. "I've got to say the games I've seen him play I thought he was playing perfectly well but it's not for me to pick Chelsea's team. From an English perspective I'm still very happy to consider Ashley Cole as a potential left-back but the competition for that spot is particularly fierce. Baines is also playing well and, on top of that, we have Gibbs and Shaw, two younger players who, I think, can definitely put these more senior ones under pressure. I would definitely not be concerned, if there were no Cole or Baines, about Gibbs or Shaw playing."