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Football: Defensive conundrum for England in San Marino

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

England manager Roy Hodgson faces a dilemma in central defence ahead of his side's 2014 World Cup qualifying match away to Group H minnows San Marino on Friday.

Since Hodgson named his squad last week, Tottenham Hotspur's Michael Dawson and Gary Cahill of Chelsea have both withdrawn through injury, while Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand ruled himself out, citing fitness concerns.

With Phil Jagielka of Everton already sidelined by injury, it leaves Hodgson desperately short of experience in the centre of defence.

It may matter little against perennial underdogs San Marino, but Friday's game also presents an opportunity to tune up for Tuesday's taxing visit to group leaders Montenegro.

Of the centre-backs at Hodgson's disposal, only Joleon Lescott has won more than 10 caps, with Chris Smalling, Steven Caulker and the uncapped Steven Taylor boasting just five international appearances between them.

One solution may be to slide Manchester United midfielder Michael Carrick into the defensive line.

Carrick has played at centre-back on occasion for his club, and with England expected to dominate possession at Serravalle's Stadio Olimpico, his ease on the ball may prove more useful than the nous of a seasoned defender.

In the absence of so many experienced centre-backs, James Milner has identified his Manchester City colleague Lescott as the man to marshal the England back line, despite his fall from favour at the Etihad Stadium.

"Joleon hasn't played loads of games for City this year but when he has done, he has played well," Milner said.

"I don't think we will be affected by the withdrawals. Joleon has now come in, has played a lot of games for England and is a top player as well."

England currently trail Montenegro by two points in Group H and their last outing saw them overcome World Cup hosts Brazil 2-1 in a friendly at Wembley Stadium in February.

Friday's game will provide an altogether different test, against a team who have not mustered a goal in a competitive fixture since a 3-1 loss to Slovakia in October 2008.

However, despite the thankless nature of England's task, with Montenegro looming on the horizon, Scott Parker says the visitors cannot afford to let their focus slip.

"It will certainly be a different game, but also it will be a difficult one," said the Tottenham midfielder.

"San Marino will have 11 men behind the ball and will camp in to make it hard for us to create chances.

"Our focus will be breaking them down, getting the three points and moving on to Tuesday."

The last time England visited San Marino, in November 1993, they conceded a goal after just 8.3 seconds.

Although the visitors eventually prevailed 7-1, Davide Gualtieri's goal went down in European football folklore, and Milner says his team-mates must be on their mettle if they are to avoid a similarly infamous fate.

"I remember what happened in 1993. San Marino scored after about eight seconds," he said.

"I was watching on the TV at my local cricket club. It was one of those moments when everything seemed to stand still.

"It just went deathly quiet. I expected it to be a good game to watch and after eight seconds it was 1-0 to them.

"It shows what can happen and hopefully that will not happen on Friday."

San Marino coach Giampaolo Mazza, who saw his side lose 5-0 at Wembley in October, has presided over 75 defeats in 78 games since taking the helm in 1998.

"What I tell my players more than anything is not to be scared," he told the FIFA website last week.

"We've played against all the great teams and my instructions have always been the same. I ask my players to concentrate hard and to give their all for 90 minutes without worrying about the result.

"As long as we show the same desire, it doesn't matter if we lose 1-0, 4-0 or 7-0. The result is not the priority."

thw/nr13

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130320/football-defensive-conundrum-england-san-marino