England return to competitive action for the first time since their dispiriting Quarter-Final showing against Italy with a return to Moldova. Sixteen years ago David Beckham was awarded his first cap in Chisinau, by Glenn Hoddle, and the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ was born. Sixteen years later and the ‘Golden Generation’s’ influence has largely subsided or been cast asunder, but its last remnants linger to make up the core of the transitional England of 2012.
Though the leader of the Golden Generation, Beckham, has failed to add to his 115 caps in the last 3 years, the 32-year old Steven Gerrard will lead the generation’s ninth, and presumably, final two-year tournament cycle. There he is joined by the equally ageing Chelsea triumvirate of Frank Lampard, John Terry and Ashley Cole – though Cole has been ruled out with an ankle injury. The generation’s golden talent, Wayne Rooney, will return later in the campaign amid growing concerns over his fitness and longevity at the top of the game.
When Beckham debuted in Chisinau in September 1996, he was following in the footsteps of the stalwarts of the Euro 1996 side – Seaman, Pearce, Ince, Gascoigne and Shearer. As in 1996, the current old guard will likely provide the backbone of England’s path to Brazil. During the qualification process for France ’98, Hoddle’s England were aided by the emergence of Liverpool’s then wonder-kid Michael Owen, along with Beckham and Rio Ferdinand.
Of the current crop of youngsters, who can hope to make a similar impact upon a stagnant squad? Manchester United’s midfielder Tom Cleverley has been earmarked by many and was unlucky to miss Euro 2012 through injury. With Arsenal’s prodigious Jack Wilshere still weeks away from a return after a 15 month absence, Jack Rodwell looking to kickstart a stop-start career with a move to Manchester City and Jordan Henderson struggling to make inroads at Brendan Rodgers’ revamped Liverpool, the baton falls squarely upon Cleverley.
Tom Cleverley must search for consistency and fitness to displace the old guard in midfield
The resumption of the 31-year old Michael Carrick’s England career in Switzerland last month reflects the dearth of realistic options available to Roy Hodgson in the team’s engine room. At 23, Cleverley must push beyond an injury ravaged first season in the Old Trafford first team if he hopes to supplant either Gerrard or Lampard as the fulcrum of this England team, but he faces an uphill struggle. At the same stage of their careers Lampard and Gerrard were approaching 150 Premier League appearances; Cleverley has just 38.
Up-front, the upcoming generation faces similar teething issues. Cleverley’s United teammate, Danny Welbeck, fresh from leading England’s attack in Poland and Ukraine represents the future of the English frontline, however he faces limited opportunities at Old Trafford this season following the arrival of Robin van Persie. Having failed to secure a deadline day switch to Liverpool, Daniel Sturridge is likely to face a season on the periphery of the Chelsea set-up, where he has featured far less regularly under Roberto Di Matteo than André Villas-Boas.
Though Andy Carroll misses out after pulling his hamstring, the West Ham United loanee is likely to feature heavily in the qualifying process after encouraging displays in Ukraine and with the promise of first-team football at Upton Park. Yet the continued selection of Jermaine Defoe, at the expense of the erratic Darren Bent, further enforces the paucity of youthful attacking options. Despite the scarcity of available options in attack, this should not overly concern Hodgson ahead of what should be a straightforward encounter with the Moldavians.
Moldova’s National Team c.2011
In this multimedia age, coupled with the international diversity of Premier League football, England are rarely ill-prepared during the qualification process and well-versed in the key attributes and dynamics of the opposition. Moldova however, a nation that has never before qualified for a major tournament, represent something of an unknown quantity.
During qualification for South Africa in 2010 Moldova finished bottom of a group that did not contain any of the European heavyweights and accrued a goal difference of -12. They fared better in qualifying for Euro 2012 with 3 victories, including a home defeat of Finland and 2 comprehensive victories over Kazakhstan, yet they have failed to find the net in 4 friendly fixtures this calendar year and were on the wrong-end of a 4-0 rout to Venezuela in May.
In a group that consists of England, Montenegro, Ukraine and Poland the most the Moldavians can hope for is 6 points off minnows San Marino. A mere 11 international goals are spread out amongst the current squad, the wealth of which is drawn from the Russian, Israeli, Kazakh, Azerbaijani and Moldavian leagues.
Hodgson will not learn or gain much from this trip to Chisinau, instead the measure of his success and the shape of his evolutionary squad will come with upcoming fixtures in the next 6 weeks against Ukraine and Poland, either side of an encounter against the 206th ranked team in world football – San Marino.
A generation that began with Beckham in 1996 and ended with Rooney in 2003 has hitherto been remembered only for tragicomic quarter final defeats on penalties in World Cups and European Championships. Its zenith arrived prematurely at Euro 2004, inspired by the precocious talents of an 18-year old Rooney. Fast forward 8 years and 3 lamentable international tournament performances the Golden Generation is approaching an inglorious end. Their successors have the unenviable task of continuing their tainted legacy. Roy Hodgson has between now and the World Cup of 2014 to discover whether the likes of Cleverley, Wilshere, and Welbeck are capable enough.