There was a time when an England trip to Moldova heralded a new beginning. The national team's only previous visit to Chisinau saw David Beckham handed a debut cap, the Manchester United youngster preferred to Matt Le Tissier and Mark Draper in Glenn Hoddle's first squad and duly shoehorned into a five-man midfield with Jamie Redknapp crocked and David Batty fit enough only for the bench. Those names ring out as if from a distant era these days yet, when Roy Hodgson's side trot out at the Zimbru stadium on Friday, their line-up may feel rather retrospective: this could be a case of going back to the future.
Among the experienced campaigners selected in what has become, with the withdrawals of Ashley Cole and Andy Carroll, a 22-man squad are Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Their inclusion hardly constituted a surprise. Gerrard is Hodgson's captain and performed impressively at Euro 2012. Lampard, injured over the summer, captained the side to victory against Italy in Berne last month when the Liverpool midfielder was rested. Yet, while the pair have 187 caps, 66 years and 42 goals between them, Hodgson is venturing into the unknown by considering their partnership first-hand.
England have been denied either one or the other for some time now. The pair have started only one friendly for their country in a little over two years and not since the shambles of Bloemfontein – the 4-1 defeat by Germany that dumped the side out of the 2010 World Cup – have they begun a competitive game together. Yet theirs is the selection the manager is contemplating.
The scenario revisits a tired debate. Successive England managers – Sven- Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello – have picked the pair but been left frustrated that dynamic individual club form has not been transposed on to the bigger stage in partnership.
The combination has looked slightly awkward at times, somewhat ineffective at others. It has never been truly disastrous but the knowledge of both players' capabilities has led to a certain dissatisfaction when the midfielders have failed to stamp their authority consistently on opponents at this level. Hodgson, back in May, had conceded as much. "That's why I don't want to sit here and say: 'It is nonsense, of course it can work,'" he said then. "That would be flying in the face of quite a lot of evidence." Yet personal pride demands he seeks to address the issue himself.
His message has been tweaked slightly since as he relishes having both available. "They're both very good players and I don't think anybody has seen obstacles," he said. "It's maybe just that, when the game has taken place, people haven't enjoyed what they saw. They haven't been together in my time as England manager and I don't see any obstacles as to why they can't play together in the team, and I'm not going to be affected by past judgments of them playing together. If they do play, what are they going to play like? That's something for Steven and Frank to decide because, if they do get the chance to play together, they'll have to take it and play well. I'll make my own judgments."
In the continued absence of Jack Wilshere it appears likely that England's road to Rio will begin with the two familiar faces in central midfield, most likely with Michael Carrick – now offered another opportunity to kickstart his competitive international career at 31 – slipped in between them in what has the feel of a 4-3-3. Carrick would offer balance and allow those at his side to maraud upfield without England being left too vulnerable on the counter-attack. Certainly the lack of striker options in the party, with no replacement summoned for Carroll, suggests the use of a lone forward supplemented by allies from wide, drawn perhaps from James Milner or Adam Johnson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Theo Walcott.
The idea of Gerrard playing off a striker in a 4-2-3-1 is often mooted but rarely favoured by the management who see his assets best utilised bursting forward at opposing ranks rather than playing at times with his back to goal. That could, of course, change but, with Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young absent, England must find alternative sources of creation.
Lampard's role has shifted for club and country over recent months, his scuttling displays en route to Chelsea's European Cup last year proof that that he can be effective from a deeper-lying brief. Tom Cleverley, so impressive in Berne from a more advanced position, might normally – and will eventually – compete with the Chelsea senior for a starting place but the manager's instinct may be to fall back on experience in his first foray into a qualification campaign, even against opponents ranked 137th in the world and 47th out of 53 in Europe.
The tone has to be set in Chisinau, particularly with an awkward match against Ukraine next week, and Hodgson will be eager to confront the Gerrard-Lampard conundrum. Three days of assessment await but, back in the city where Beckham made his debut, England may end up relying on seasoned campaigners.
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