England flew to Minsk for a 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifier against Belarus today without half their first-choice defence, and with doubt hanging over Steven Gerrard's place in the team. With John Terry and Ashley Cole sidelined by back and hamstring injuries respectively, Fabio Capello must reshape his back four.
The England coach must also find a solution to the below-par performances of his midfield. Gerrard and Frank Lampard's apparent inability to form an effective partnership in central midfield was again in evidence during Saturday's 5-1 win over Kazakhstan, and the former appears certain to be shunted out to the left on Wednesday evening.
In the longer term, there is a growing body of opinion that says Capello must choose between his top two attacking midfielders, and, on current form, Lampard would be the more popular candidate. Gerrard admits he has not reproduced his Liverpool form on a regular basis for his country, but has appealed to Capello to keep faith in him.
"He (Capello) has spoken to me before each game and told me what he wants me to do," revealed Gerrard. "He's said he wants me to emulate my form for Liverpool for England and he is prepared to help me. That's what I want. I don't want a manager to give up on me for club or country. I want them to keep trying to make me better.
"I've got every confidence in this manager and the set-up he's got behind him to improve my form. I'll be honest, . I believe we are getting to where we want to be."
I haven't always hit my Liverpool form for England, but it's not through a lack of trying. I'm desperate to play well for England
Gerrard accepts that he has been guilty of storming all over the pitch, attempting to single-handedly change the course of matches. "I have tried to improve that," he said. "That was a criticism from Rafa (Benitez).
"He's helped me to become slightly more disciplined and I feel I can play either role - either attacking or if we're up against a good side when you need your two midfield players to be disciplined, I can do that now.
"You can't afford to be Roy of the Rovers all the time against top sides. If I'm wandering off all over the place my team-mates will come unstuck. Sometimes I think I am thinking about it too much, trying too hard.
"Before the game you say you want to take the game by the scruff of the neck, be the main man, make it happen. And sometimes if it doesn't happen for you, you try to force passes and you get frustrated, that's normal. I think that's where I am at the moment. I am putting too much pressure on myself and trying too hard.
"Maybe I do have to relax. I'm more relaxed at Liverpool because maybe I can afford to have a one-off bad game for Liverpool because there'll be another game around the corner, whereas if you play badly for England it may be a long time before you can correct it."
England's 4-1 win in Croatia last month, by far their best performance of recent years, came with Lampard playing in midfield alongside Gareth Barry when Gerrard was out injured. Capello may have been tempted to stick with that combination against Kazakhstan, but an injury to Joe Cole gave him the chance to bring Gerrard back in.
After another substandard display against the Kazakhs, Gerrard could be playing for his place in Minsk, and he admits he is prepared for the possibility of being dropped to the bench. "," he said.
If the manager decides to go with Frank and not me I'll get on with it. I'll work hard to get back in the team
"Vice-versa, I'm sure he'd do the same. What we all want is for this team to get to the World Cup. You talk about me and Lampard, but the big picture is this team is improving slowly."
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