Thursday, 11 March 2010

The two 35-year-olds pushing for a last hurrah in South Africa - and I don't mean Beckham, he's only 34

FABIO CAPELLO could be forced to consider two 35-year-olds when he names his initial 30-strong World Cup squad on May 11. And no, I don't mean David Beckham. He's not 35 until May 2.
Take a deep breath. These two are by no means the most popular men in football. But they may be the best we have in a defence hit by injury and off-field scandal.
If Arsenal and Manchester United continue to vie for the Premier League and Champions League crowns, the claims of Sol Cambell (18 September, 1974) and Gary Neville (18 February, 1975) have to be considered. Gasp!
Yes, I know Spurs fans hate Sol. And those at Portsmouth and Notts County have mixed views. Arsenal fans were hardly leaping about when unattached Sol became Arsene Wenger's only signing in the January transfer window.
The feeling was he would play occasionally and look for another club. But then came the disaster everyone feared - injury and unhappiness from want-away William Gallas, who looks like he's off to Roma.
Who would partner Dutch discovery Thomas Vermaelen with Philipe Senderos gone to Everton? Mikael Silvestre, the Manchester United reject? Johan Djourou, the limited stand-in? Alex Song pulled out of his midfield holding role? No. Sol got one of the toughest jobs in football, at the heart of a defence struggling behind a talented but lightweight midfield.
And the man who came so close to immortality in the 1998 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina and the Euro 2004 quarter-final against Portugal - he had storming headers unfairly disallowed in both tight games - has done a stirring job.
Then look at the problems surrounding our current centre-back options. John Terry's well-documented problems at Chelsea have seen him stripped of the England captaincy while West Ham's Matthew Upson is hardly rock-solid and Rio Ferdinand has had a torrid time with injury, distractions and suspensions at Manchester United this season. With Wes Brown crocked, England could turn to Manchester City's over-priced Joleon Lescott or Everton's Phil Jagielka, coming back strongly after a broken leg.
But just this morning, after Tuesday's stirring 5-0 Champions League win over Porto which put Arsenal into the last eight in Europe, Sol said: "I'm going to give everything I've got every time I play. The World Cup? You never know. I might get a sniff if I keep on playing. Why not?"
And with Jeremiah Sulzeer Campbell - the only man ever to represent England in six consecutive major finals (Euro 1996, 2000 and 2004 and the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups) - hoping to add to his 73 caps at centre-back, how about the older of the Neville brothers, Gary Alexander, taking his tally to 86 at right back?
Neville made his England debut under Terry Venables back in 1996 and has played under five international coaches. Injury has pushed him out of Capello's plans - but fresh injuries may force the Generalissimo to think again.
Manchester United's Wes Brown - awful at right back against Egypt, but considered a utility defender who could also play centrally - has broken a bone in his foot while Liverpool's Glenn Johnson is on his way back after medial knee ligament damage. Manchester City's Micah Richards may be considered a possible but he captained the Under 21s in their defeat against Greece last week.
In that same quarter-final against Portugal in 2004 (see picture above, with Sol and Gary in turbo-whinge mode), England seemed to lose their way when Neville, always the leader when his old pal David Beckham wore the armband, went off with Wayne Rooney.
And last night, as Manchester United crushed Milan in Europe, there was Neville providing the cross for Rooney's opening header - a devastating partnership that could be neatly replicated in South Africa this summer.
Why was Neville playing? Because Ronaldinho tored Argentine diddyman Rafael apart in the first leg. Using his nouse, his mouth and his never-diminishing energy, Gary kept Ron very quiet last night, just as Sir Alex Ferguson had planned.
Look, I'm not saying either of these veterans will survive the cut when Capello trims his squad from 30 to 23 on June 1. But our best goalkeeper David James (born 1 August, 1970) will be 40 three weeks after the World Cup final at Soccer City on July 11 - so let's not rule them out on age alone.
On popularity, Campbell would struggle and the ever-moaning Neville - reviled on most terraces from Merseyside to London - wouldn't have a sniff.
But the other 31 countries at the World Cup (apart from Spain) would certainly find a place for two 35-year-olds plying their trade at the top of the Premier League and the last eight of the Champions League.
And who knows, Sol could get the chance to score that glory goal he was unfairly denied in two huge quarter-finals. Or Gary Neville could finally score his first goal for England. We can dream can't we?

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