Roy Hodgson excited to see how young England squad fare vs. Germany
It needs to be something pretty special to disrupt the traditional English practise of cramming as many games as possible into the Easter weekend. In theory, at least, an England versus Germany game in Berlin should be fairly special. Still, there is always the sense that this, the fourth meeting between the two sides in a little over eight years, isn't quite so much a rivalry but, rather, a one-sided feud.
England regard Germany as their big rivals, but the Germans offer a relative fraction of enmity in return, their primary adversaries, of course, being the Netherlands. It's a bit like a small boy standing outside a slightly bigger boy's window shouting, "I don't like you," only for the bigger boy to quietly draw the curtains and turn the TV up a bit louder.
History and rivalry aside, this is part of a tough run of what you might call "prestige" friendlies for England and Roy Hodgson: In November, they played France and Spain, and after Saturday they host the Netherlands at Wembley. In theory, these tests will allow England to judge exactly what stage they are at in the lead-up to the European Championships. Does big opposition necessarily mean big ambitions?
On paper, they are way behind the Germans in almost every aspect, not least in experience, but Hodgson certainly seems optimistic, drawing comparisons between his side now and Jogi Loew's a decade ago, a side that would eventually go on to do rather well.
"Perhaps we are where Germany were after 2006, with a lot of good young players," said Hodgson on Friday. "We are much closer to the start than Germany, not least because they have completed their journey. You can't get much further [along] than winning the World Cup."
This youthful England side have plenty of talent but are still green, something that playing the world champions in the Olympic stadium might hope to rectify.
"There will be quite a lot of inexperienced players on the field," said Hodgson, "but the only way these players are going to get experience is by playing in games like these. That's the best we can do, to give the players that kind of opposition and that kind of opportunity to gain experience. I'm confident that the team I've selected is a good one to take on the might of Germany."
This England side is slightly unusual in comparison to ones that have travelled to international tournaments before, in that there are few players who will certainly start the game above all others, no matter what their form. Whereas in the past there was Terry, Ferdinand, Gerrard, Lampard, Beckham and Owen to squeeze into the side seemingly by right, there are only two (Joe Hart and Wayne Rooney) that will absolutely play, assuming they can stand up come June. You could perhaps add Jack Wilshere to that list, but surely even Hodgson's fascination with the Arsenal man as a deep-lying playmaker will not hold if he doesn't play for his club before the end of the season.
Hodgson will be forced into a modicum of experimentation for Saturday's game, since Hart, Rooney and Wilshere are unavailable; the dilemma then becomes what level of tinkering is most useful. Hodgson hinted that he would perhaps play two completely different teams against Germany and then the Dutch, as he looks to give players like Jamie Vardy, Danny Drinkwater, Dele Alli and Harry Kane their chance.
Despite the scope for experimentation and relatively new players to break in, Hodgson didn't exactly speak like a man looking beyond the current squad. There has been much talk about the chances of a call-up for Mark Noble, having the season of his life for West Ham but who said this week that he has virtually given up hope of being selected for the tournament in France. Hodgson ostensibly refused to rule the Hammers skipper out (although he could say little else really, since he would be in a fair pickle if he dismissed Noble but an injury forced his call-up), but in a manner that won't do a great deal to raise the hopes of Noble. Or anyone else, really.
"There's always a player, or two players or three players, who are in the news, who many people think should have been selected or better than the ones I have selected," said Hodgson. "I refuse to close doors, but having said that, of course we have a lot of players who over the last two years have really worked hard to establish themselves as England players.
"Those that are still on the outside have still got to convince me that I'm better off leaving out one of the players I've been working with to make space for them. We've only got 20 outfield places, and unfortunately we can't include every player who's having a good season for their club. Mark Noble is the latest name, but before the 2014 World Cup, it was Grant Holt, so there's always someone."
Being compared to Holt, currently on loan at League One Rochdale from League One Wigan, will probably not persuade Noble to keep the summer free, just in case.
So if he's not looking at fresh blood, what will this game mean in the wider scheme of things? Hodgson was at pains to point out that success before tournaments can often mean little and that come the first group game, every team starts "with a blank page."
This game might give the more youthful players in the England squad a chance to play against the best in the world, something that could be particularly valuable when you remember that those in the best form for their clubs this term (Kane, Vardy, Drinkwater, Dele Alli) have done so largely only against Premier League teams. While the division has been wildly exciting this season, it has also been pretty low on quality, so how will they cope against the Germans? It's tempting, for reasons other than simply nationality, to draw comparisons with the Tottenham team that have cut swathes through most of England's finest but (admittedly with a weakened team) were blown away by Borussia Dortmund in the Europa League.
"There's no one answer, and no phrase or sentence I can give you," said Hodgson when asked what it would take to make these players into a first-class team. "Boring words like keep working and showing the right sort of ethos to become a better team, the right focus and discipline, the right attitude and application. All of these boring words that coaches come out with all the time, and unfortunately until someone finds a magic wand, we'll have to keep doing that."
He might not find that wand in Berlin on Saturday, but we will at least see if he's a little closer.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.