Hopefuls keen to impress
In a move that smacks of today's diet of reality television, it seems the England staff have identified around 50 'hopefuls', currently playing in and around the Premiership, that have a chance of sneaking into the national team ahead of a friendly match with Spain next month, and further in the future, Euro 2008.
Charged with maintaining our interest in the Three Lions during the international lull a few have already excelled this season with eye-catching performances for their clubs, and in doing so, have attracted manager Steve McClaren's attention.
Man City's Joey Barton has shown his ability, even in the wake of some substantial family issues and an FA fine for indecent exposure against Everton.
As a tough tackling midfielder, Barton brings some bite into the City central area, and has also shown an eye for goal so far, netting four times to become their top scorer before Christmas. His range of passing and temperament still need some tweaking, but the Scouser certainly has enough in his locker to make a late run for the squad.
England do have a wealth of talent in the central midfield department, but if Frank Lampard, Owen Hargreaves and Steven Gerrard are all ruled out, Bolton's Kevin Nolan could be another to get his chance, if Barton doesn't get there first.
The Bolton skipper has shown a similar propensity for tough tackling, leadership and goal scoring, although he still has not hit the heights of his impressive season last campaign. Seven yellow cards already this year may make McClaren wary of utilising the Bolton man in his midfield line-up, and as mentioned before, there is a wealth of talent ahead of him in the pecking order.
That said, Bolton's form this season has been down to some inspirational performances from the skipper, and if he doesn't make it into the England setup, we may see him in a Republic of Ireland shirt before long, as he is eligible through a family connection.
Another captain more likely to impress is Aston Villa's Gareth Barry. Not only does his versatility in the defensive unit and midfield make him a valuable asset, his form so far this year would certainly warrant an England call.
Having already had a taste of international honours back at the start of the century, Barry failed to grasp his chance, and now, rejuvenated under Martin O'Neill, will be glad of a second opportunity.
His composure and skill from the penalty spot is certainly a bonus for a country with a poor track record in shoot-outs, while his left foot is capable of challenging Stuart Downing and Joe Cole for the berth on the left side of midfield. He will, almost certainly, get a chance to impress in the forthcoming friendlies.
And in Portsmouth's Matt Taylor, England are blessed with yet another left foot that will be pushing for inclusion come 2008. Under Harry Redknapp, Taylor has been a revelation this season, and has helped Pompey to scale the heights of the Premiership with some fantastic goals and consistent play.
Whether he is used as a left winger, or as back-up for Ashley Cole at left-back, Taylor is in the same mould as Barry as a penalty taker, but of the two is in a richer vein of form. Having represented England at U-21 level, Taylor also has a habit of scoring spectacular goals out of nothing - something that England could certainly use.
West Ham's Dean Ashton may find his return from injury heaped with a pressure to perform on the international stage. Unlucky to have missed his opportunity a few months back with a freak injury in training, Ashton's return is viewed as a pivotal moment, not only for the Hammers, but also the Three Lions.
A potent goal-scorer and aerial threat, with an ability to drop back and link up the play, Ashton is one of the first names on McClaren's list to try out. Still young enough to have a real impact on the international setup, the New Year will bring chances for the striker and he'll be keen to make the most of them.
While McClaren may have his eye trained on a few players already, others are making waves in the hope of attracting his attention for future inclusion.
Tottenham would have been worried their midfield would suffer after the sale of Michael Carrick to Manchester United, but the young Tom Huddlestone has stepped up and even managed to oust veteran Edgar Davids from the line-up with his impressive performances.
Leon Osman has been quietly going about his business with Everton while the Toffees midfield succumbs to ever increasing injury worries. Once viewed as the successor to Wayne Rooney, Osman's central midfield performances have impressed as he showcases his pace, skill and vision on a regular basis for his club. It can only be a matter of time before he gets the chance to prove himself at international level.
With Ashley Cole, Micah Richards, Gary Neville and Wayne Bridge currently occupying the England full-back berths, Fulham's Liam Rosenior and Wigan's Leighton Baines have a tough task ahead of them if they are going to break into the squad. However, with Bridge getting limited playing time and Neville in the twilight of his career, there could an opening in the near future.
And just to show there is no Premiership bias, McClaren has also maintained an interest in Celtic's Lee Naylor. The former Wolves left-back has been in great form for the Hoops this year, and could be another to benefit from Bridge's lack of football at Chelsea.
On the possible re-call list, Portsmouth's goalkeeper David James is the name that stands out most on this season's form. The big stopper has been immense between the sticks as Pompey continue their push for Europe, alongside Sol Campbell, but has already said he understands McClaren's decision to opt for youth. He may not be keen for a spot on the bench, but on this form, he's challenging Paul Robinson for his spot.
Two who have been suffering from a lack of football, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Theo Walcott are sure to get more of a chance to impress, although not before they get more games for their respective clubs. Walcott, in particular, at least has youth on his side.
An ageing David Beckham may understand their plight, having spent most of the year on the bench at Real Madrid, but is surely beyond a recall at his time of life. Although he certainly has the pedigree and international experience to fill in, should Aaron Lennon get injured.
In short, McClaren certainly cannot complain of a lack of choice.
As the friendlies in the New Year will show, there are plenty of players keen to prove themselves before the 2008 competition, how many will get the chance to showcase their skills is up to him.