Manchester City's increased presence in England squad show how far they've come
17 October 2009 04:44
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Manchester City, reflecting their accelerated growth into a major force, could have as many players in Fabio Capello's South Africa squad as their more established rivals next summer.
For the first time in over 30 years, three City players started for England on Wednesday night: Gareth Barry, Wayne Bridge and Shaun Wright-Phillips.
That was the first time City had been so well represented since April 1978, when Peter Barnes, Joe Corrigan and Dave Watson played against Brazil in a friendly at Wembley, two years after City won their last trophy.
"I think it shows how far City have come," Barry said. "Obviously there were a few players missing but we had three players out performing really well which is a sign of where we're going. It can only be good for Manchester City if we've got a good nucleus of players in the England squad. It was good to be able to link up with Wayne and Shaun down the left hand side – we know each other's games pretty well, so that helps City and it helps England."
It is no coincidence that the last time City players were well represented with the national side was also the last time they were competing for the league title (they finished fourth in 1977-78).
City were a force in the very late Sixties and for much of the Seventies but not until Sheikh Mansour came calling last year have they been able to consider themselves capable of challenging the best. With that elevation in status has come a stronger presence in the national side.
Barry is the most important to Capello's plans. He has been central to the national side since Steve McClaren recalled him (four years after his previous cap) in February 2007 but, surprisingly, was left out of the side against Ukraine last weekend, Capello picking Michael Carrick instead. Barry's response was telling – he was comfortably England's best player last week, robbed of the man-of-the-match award by Steve Bruce's eccentric selection of David Beckham.
Despite obviously performing with an agenda – he looked much hungrier and sharper than his colleagues – Barry was reluctant to put it down to being dropped, for fear of being accused of complacency. "You always try and do the best job and that was no different," he said.
"You've got to be on your toes because competition for England is as high as ever. With it being World Cup year, competitiveness within this group of players is at its highest. So you have to be performing well." Straight out of the Capello manual, that.
Competition is particularly intense for Wright-Phillips. Playing on the left wing, he performed unevenly against Belarus with patches of invisibility in part compensated for by his goal. With Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott and David Beckham competing for the right-wing spot, he will need to rediscover his impressive early season form to get in Capello's final 23.
"It was a different role for Shaun, playing on the left but he's scored a goal and done himself no harm," Barry said. "He linked up well with some of the play and got back when he has needed to. Those wide positions are as tough as any at the moment because there are so many good player. I'm sure Shaun realises he's got to perform like he did tonight all the way through the season."
For Bridge, City's other starter on Wednesday night, the biggest threat could come from within Eastlands itself. Joleon Lescott's ability to play at left-back could prompt Capello to select him as Ashley Cole's back up, also giving the England manager added cover at centre back. As a specialist left-back, Bridge is surely second only to Cole, but his lack of versatility might cost him and Lescott is a player growing in stature.
In the interim before the next international, against Brazil next month, those private hopes and ambitions must be subsumed by the greater good of Manchester City.
The increased number of internationals in the squad means Mark Hughes has more quality to choose from but it also means, like the managers of the big four clubs, he has to suffer the post-international break cocktail of minor injures and jet lag. City have Kolo Toure (heel), Craig Bellamy (groin), Lescott (calf), Pablo Zabaleta (hamstring), Martin Petrov (knee) and Nigel De Jong (knock) struggling for fitness for Sunday's game with Wigan.
"In terms of games like this, it is the experienced players that have to keep the others going," Barry said. "We've had a good start but now is the time to keep it going rather than sit on what we have achieved. Players like myself and Kolo have to keep on at the younger players to keep the form going throughout this time.
"You need to keep grinding it out. That's what big teams do. I'm sure at some stage this season we're not going to be playing well and hopefully we can still get the points and keep climbing the table."
With Capello's eye monitoring your every kick, you don't need much more motivation.