Soccer - England reserves determined not to be embarrassed
By Ian Chadband
LONDON (Reuters) - It was meant to be an opportunity to let England's young lions roam free to demonstrate how they may just be equipped to inject fear into the two best teams in world football.
Instead, the build-up to the glamour friendlies against Germany and Brazil at Wembley has been accompanied in the English media by mutterings of "farce" and "embarrassment" amid the plethora of withdrawals from Gareth Southgate's squad.
Because with so many of his key players having pulled out with injuries of varying severity, there's an argument that for Southgate the two matches - against Germany on Friday and Brazil next Tuesday - have now become futile exercises.
Not that the young manager would dare admit to any dismay in public. With qualification for the World Cup finals wrapped up, he had, in any case, already trotted out how performances meant more than the results in these two matches.
He cut senior players while blooding youngsters he believed could help him build a passing team with enterprise and verve. "We can see what's possible here, how can we evolve the team, how can we take it forward," he said.
Yet the loss of at least five players who would surely have launched this brave new world in his starting XI on Friday has wholly scuppered his plans to give potential 'A teamers' a taste of the quality they will face in Russia next year.
It will be far removed from the opposition they ground down in an unbeaten, if uninspiring, qualifying campaign.
Southgate's captain Harry Kane and thrusting young Tottenham Hotspur team mate Harry Winks withdrew on Monday while Manchester City's Raheem Sterling and Fabian Delph, both in great form, pulled out along with Liverpool's Jordan Henderson the next day.
The squad had lost its potential talisman in Spurs' Dele Alli while the likes of Liverpool's Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne and Arsenal's Danny Welbeck were among a dozen potential candidates sidelined by injury.
So, opportunity knocks louder for uncapped youngsters like Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Joe Gomez and Tammy Abraham and late replacements like Jack Cork and Jake Livermore. Yet at this stage it still takes a leap of the imagination to see any of these playing much of a part for England in Russia next year.
Not that any player can afford to think that way. There may be five uncapped squad members in total but as Tottenham's Eric Dier, now the key figure in a depleted midfield, said: "We have to challenge ourselves - that's the right mentality."
He was asked whether there was a potential for England's second-stringers to end up being embarrassed by both their old fierce rivals Germany and the quality of the world's second-ranked side Brazil.
"I don't really see it as a risk," shrugged Dier. "If we get embarrassed then there is a lot more to work on. If we don't, we are on the right path.
"If we want to be prepared for one of the biggest sporting events in the world we have to prepare by facing the best."
The real frustration for Southgate is that he will only have two more friendlies, against the Netherlands in Amsterdam and Italy at Wembley in March, before naming his provisional World Cup squad.
Not, as he asserts, that there could an ever be such a thing as an England friendly against these sides. The upside for him could only come if his fledgling reserves can somehow fashion a victory over their greatest continental rivals on Friday.
(Reporting by Ian Chadband, editing by Ed Osmond)