Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is on track to make a quick return to action after he took part in an intense sprint workout during England’s first full training session in Rio de Janeiro yesterday.
The Arsenal winger’s participation in the World Cup was thrown into doubt when he strained a medial knee ligament in England’s draw with Ecuador in Miami last week. Oxlade-Chamberlain sat inside as the rest of the 23-man squad took part in a full training session at the Urca military base, but he did emerge later to embark upon a series of shuttle runs with fitness coach Tony Strudwick.
Oxlade-Chamberlain wore a brace on his injured right knee, but he put in a series of 20-yard bursts at full-speed, which is welcome news for Roy Hodgson ahead of Saturday’s Group D opener against Italy in Manaus.
Hodgson has until Friday to decide whether he wants to replace the 20-year-old with either Jon Flanagan or John Stones, who are on standby.
Steven Gerrard did not complete the hour-long session in near-30 degree heat, but it later emerged that the England captain withdrew as he only had a tight groin.
England were given a typically-Brazilian welcome for their first session at the training base, which stands in the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain. A samba band made up of 20 children from local Sport Relief funded project, Bola Pra Frente, greeted the squad as they came out to train. A local man sang Queen song We are the Champions as the squad posed for pictures.
The bookmakers regard England as anything but potential champions, but Brazil’s most famous footballer seems to regard Hodgson’s side as contenders.
“I prefer Brazil to face Uruguay, then you have the revenge,” said Pele, referring to Uruguay’s shock triumph over Brazil here in 1950.
Asked about England’s chances, Pele was quoted by the BBC as saying: “England – like Brazil, Italy, France – have a reputation. We must be prepared for them.”
As you would expect of a military base, security was tight around the squad as they trained yesterday. In the seas behind the pitch a submarine was visible. England were given a police escort to the training ground, although they were held up for a few minutes as the coach had left without Ross Barkley, who returned to cheers from the rest of the playing staff.
The squad will train at Urca today and tomorrow before flying to Manaus, where reality will hit the players.
Hodgson has almost four decades’ worth of coaching experience, but he will come under pressure like never before in this World Cup. The 66-year-old is confident he has a good enough support network around him to cope though.
“What helps me deal with [the pressure] is the players,” he said. “I enjoy working with the players – they are the ones who really excite me. What keeps me going and keeps me calm is watching training sessions and seeing players perform, feeling we have got good players in England now who could be very exciting in this tournament and going forward. That’s what gives me the calmness because I don’t feel there is any need to be concerned about them.”
England midfielder Adam Lallana is hoping to impress Hodgson sufficiently over the coming days to earn a place in the starting line-up to face Italy.
The Southampton playmaker is widely thought to be nailed on to face the Azzurri in England’s World Cup opener. He has edged his way into the side this season on the back of a stellar time with Southampton, but is not taking his place for granted.
“It would mean the world [to play],” he said. “But the main thing is getting the three points and whether that comes with me off the bench or in the starting line-up, the result is all that matters. We have got a few days left to try and impress the manager.”
Lallana recognises the competition in the squad, and added: “It’s a good feeling. We all want the same outcome and that’s a win. It’s healthy.”
Lallana was also heartened by the appearance of Oxlade-Chamberlain. “It’s really optimistic seeing him running,” Lallana said. “It’s a massive step and fingers crossed he’ll be fit for the group stages.”
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s club-mate Jack Wilshere was also heartened to see him out on the field. “He did well, some running which, five days after an injury, is good. He’s young, the body heals better when you’re younger,” he said. “He has 24-hour treatment too. Hopefully we can get him training.”
Wilshere is thought to be competing with Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson for a spot in England’s midfield but he does not see it that way. “There is that [competition] throughout the squad but it would be disrespectful to Frank Lampard and Ross Barkley – Frank has played for England over 100 times – to say it was between me and Jordan. Jordan has had a great season, so has Frank, Ross, Alex…”