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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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Case for the defence

If the quality of a football team can be measured by its strength in depth then the England team can expect a tough international season.

The groin injury suffered by ever-present right-back Gary Neville has served to highlight the dearth of top quality talent available to England in that area.

The Manchester United defender has been ruled out of World Cup qualifiers in Wales, September 3, and Northern Ireland, September 7, and England manager Sven Goran Eriksson has been forced to review his reserves.

However, England's defensive riches in the middle of the back four and in the midfield do not extend to right-back and that role is sparsely covered - akin to goalkeeper and the left side of midfield.

It is Charlton Athletic's Luke Young who has proved the direct beneficiary of Neville's misfortune. His 100 percent start to the season with the Addicks proved a contributing factor in his recall to the England squad following a run out during England's mini tour of the USA in May, featuring against Colombia and the hosts; albeit just 18 minutes in total of playing time in two substitute appearances across the Atlantic.

The 26-year-old defender has taken some time to realise the potential expected of him as a youngster with Tottenham Hotspur, but now at the Valley he has finally broken into the senior England team, after failing to do so directly from the Under-21 set up.

Young is just one of a number of youthful or improving hopefuls, but as it stands there is no ready-made replacement for Neville, who has wracked up 76 caps for England since making his debut against Japan in 1995.

Manchester City full-back Danny Mills succeeded the injured Neville at the 2002 World Cup and performed admirably, despite a costly mistake in England's opening match which allowed Niclas Alexandersson to equalise for Sweden. But the volatile defender is often a disciplinary gamble and his regular place at City is under threat now that China international Sun Jihai is free from injury.

Glen Johnson was previously being groomed to provide back-up but the overrated Chelsea full-back was diabolical in the 4-1 defeat against Denmark in August; a performance that sounded the death knell on his international career, for the near future at least.

Johnson proved something of a revelation for West Ham during their relegation season, if that's not overly ironic, and was snapped up by Chelsea for an astonishing £6million transfer fee after making only 16 appearances in the top flight. However, the cash-happy Blues are now stuck with a defender who can't defend.

At least Eriksson now recognises this fact too. The Swede's post-Denmark get tough stance (this is relative to his 'I couldn't give a monkey's' attitude of the recent past) also put pay to calamity keeper David James' England hopes - although the official line is that the door is still open.

Other candidates to fill in at right-back include Gary's brother Phil.

During his final spell at Manchester United Neville (P) was deployed in midfield and Everton purchased him as a midfield ball winner when he became surplus to requirements at Old Trafford this summer. He has since been forced to fill-in at left-back at Goodison Park, due to Alessandro Pistone's cruciate ligament injury, but his last outing for England was also in midfield.

Club team-mate Tony Hibbert must be in Eriksson's peripheral vision having made the right-back position his own at Goodison since making his debut in the club's 2-0 win at West Ham United in March 2001. The 24-year-old is far from the finished article but he possesses all the attributes to succeed, having been converted from a midfielder.

While Eriksson does not think Hibbert is ready for England, Everton manager David Moyes thinks the youngster is already good enough for international duty.

'I know the games are important now, it is not as if there are friendlies for a player to bed in, but I don't think Tony Hibbert would have been out of place if he had been given an opportunity,' Moyes said.

'And maybe stepping up to that level will help him as well.'

Hibbert will have to battle it out with Bolton defender Nicky Hunt as the next bastion of England's right sided rearguard and the Trotters' skinny 6ft3in defender is now a regular in the England Under-21 squad.

The former centre-back featured in 31 of Bolton's 38 games last term and proved to be one of the young stars of the campaign - also winning his first under-21 cap.

Realistically Hibbert, Hunt and Young will have to fight it out for the future, when Neville finally vacates the No 2 shirt, but with six World Cup qualifying points at stake in the next few days Eriksson needs the ready article rather than youthful promise.

A series of injuries to the England manager's quota of centre-backs means that former full-back Jamie Carragher was removed from the equation before he could be considered - the Scouser is more than likely to steel the heart of defence.

The versatile defender, who used to suffer as a utility man, has really excelled at centre-back for Liverpool and was nominated as defender of the tournament as the Reds lifted their fifth European Cup in 2005.

In the absence of Carragher, as a full-back option, Luke Young is expected to assume the role of right-back, although his lack of experience of the full international arena may cause concern.

Given the quality of the opposition the lack of an accomplished replacement is unlikely to prove too costly, but against serious opposition England could be made to pay.

It will be interesting to watch which of the hopefuls, both young and old, will make the plane to Germany as Neville's understudy. Should England qualify, of course.

  • If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.