By Alison ChinFollow @@AlisonChin9
Unlike club football, international managers do not have the luxury of the January transfer window to carry out a hasty buy in order to strengthen their team’s challenge for silverware in Brazil.
Bosses of national sides will more often than not rely on the players who served them well during the qualifying campaign, but even top ranking countries like Spain and Brazil do not possess infallible squads.
After being heavily criticised for inconsistency throughout their qualifying campaign, England made the cut for the last 32 with a clinical 2-0 win over Poland on the final match day of the group stages, relying on goals from big-game duo Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard. However, any observer would agree that solidity at the back was sorely lacking during the fixture, and goalkeeper Joe Hart has proved to be anything but reliable in recent months.
Devoid of the services of Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, manager Roy Hodgson will continue to back Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka, a pair of central defenders who have decent experience but are far from talented enough to hold off the firepower they will face in the World Cup.
Manchester United’s Chris Smalling was thrown into fold against Poland and demonstrated just how wet between the ears he was as he allowed Robert Lewandowski to skip past him numerous times, proving that he should only be considered an option for the distant future, potentially alongside club team-mate Phil Jones.
For the next six months or so, Tottenham skipper Michael Dawson and Cardiff City’s Steven Caulker will work hard to get a look-in by Hodgson, with the former West Brom boss forced to decide between proficient yet unspectacular defenders or take a gamble on youth in hopes of producing a diamond under pressure. Not an enviable position from any point of view.
Lack of talent will certainly not be an issue for Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque, having called up a total of 64 different players since he took over from Luis Aragones, and almost all of these Spaniards are regular starters for their clubs.
The La Roja starting line-up picks itself, with the team particularly rich in midfield, as the likes of Juan Mata, David Silva, Isco and Santi Cazorla often find themselves on the bench, unable to displace Barcelona trio Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets. Further upfront, however, is where Spain have yet to completely find their footing.
Midfielder Cesc Fabregas was famously used in a false nine position during the team’s victorious Euro 2012 campaign, but Del Bosque would undoubtedly prefer to field a proper striker during their World Cup defence. Nevertheless, former stalwarts David Villa and Fernando Torres have struggled for form over the past year, while Roberto Soldado has yet to score a goal from open play in the Premier League.
With Manchester City’s Alvaro Negredo the most recent out of the Spanish forwards to strike for his country, the 28-year old stands a good chance of making the final cut if he stays in form, but Negredo’s lack of big game experience will weigh on Del Bosque’s mind. Sentimentality cannot play a part in the Spain boss’ decision either, so Michu’s Cinderella story will do little for his chances of playing time.
Meanwhile, the battle for the skills of Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa has been heating up, with Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari hinting that he could find a role for the in-form striker within his team. The fact talent-rich Spain find themselves forced to wait on a player who has yet to officially pledge loyalty to them, a striker who might not even fit their style of possession football, accentuates the desperation of the title holders.
Costa might have been overlooked by Brazil, but one can hardly blame Scolari when the former Chelsea head coach has Neymar and Hulk to utilize upfront. Fresh from their Confederations Cup victory, Neymar will be counted on to continue weaving his magic as Brazil look to succeed once more in front of their expectant fans.
The Brazilian squad appears to possess the right balance of youth and experience outfield, but the man playing between the posts could be a potential worry for Scolari. Unequivocal of his support for Julio Cesar despite the goalkeeper failing to make a single appearance for Championship side Queens Park Rangers this season, Scolari is aware he will be taking quite a gamble pencilling in the 34-year old custodian for the finals.
Not that Scolari has much of a choice, with his next best option likely being Botafago’s Jefferson, a 30-year old who has only spent four years outside Brazil whilst playing in Turkey and possesses just nine caps to his name. For Scolari’s sake and perhaps Brazilian hopes, Cesar must look to secure a move and regular playing time away from QPR in January.
Observers hoping for a twist at the end of the World Cup campaign will pay close attention to outsiders Belgium, a team many are tipping to stun the bigger guns during the competition following the Red Devils’ meteoric rise over the past two years.
Belgium manager Marc Wilmots can call upon Premier League stars like Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, in side which should have no problems winning games on a regular day. However, close examination of the squad will reveal them to be lacking in natural full-backs, with Wilmots often forced to play four central defenders at the back.
Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen are all ball-playing centre-backs who will strive to fill the gaps in Brazil, but they will pale in comparison to the likes of Jordi Alba, Phillipp Lahm and Dani Alves, the latter trio being natural full-backs who bomb forward throughout the game.
In an age where overlapping runs from full-backs often provide the necessary advantage to stretch opposition defences, Belgium will not possess that feature in their arsenal, forcing wing players like Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Kevin Mirallas to predictably stay wide as they are not afforded the option of cutting inside.
Although national team bosses are likely to have decided on the core of their squads for the World Cup finals, none of them will be resting on their laurels over the next few months as they look to make the best of the available personnel in order to compensate for their sides’ weaknesses.