Destination South Africa? They hope so
For some, the 18th season of the Premier League is merely the precursor to the 19th World Cup. The events of the next nine months, however, will determine which players travel to South Africa next summer. There are plenty who still have a point to prove if they are to board that plane:
Ben Foster (Manchester United)
Fabio Capello may become still more of a regular at Old Trafford this season. If Wes Brown is fit and Michael Owen is firing, he has two reasons to venture north. Ben Foster may provide the main one, though: with David James now 39 and a distinct shortage of English goalkeepers in the Premier League, the Manchester United man plays a prominent part in his thinking. Edwin van der Sar's broken finger was far from ideal for Sir Alex Ferguson; for Capello, should Foster get a two-month chance to state his case to displace the Dutchman for good, it may have been the best news of the summer though a shaky start in the Community Shield and a withdrawal from Capello's first squad of the season may just have made Foster's mission that bit more difficult.
Ryan Babel (Liverpool)
Occupying the same place in the pecking order for club and country, Ryan Babel has recently been found on the bench or making inconsequential cameos in his country's cause. Yet there comes a time when potential has to be converted into performances and both Rafa Benitez and Bert van Marwijk should be demanding more of the gifted, but seemingly eternally frustrating, Babel. If this season is like last, his place in the Dutch squad should be under threat, given the number of talented attackers at van Marwijk's disposal.
Mikel Arteta (Everton)
What is the toughest task in international football? Despite stiff competition, it may be breaking into a Spain midfield overflowing with wonderful passers. Regulars at Goodison Park can vouch for the quality of Mikel Arteta's distribution but as his career has coincided with those of players such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Xabi Alonso, his efforts have been in vain as successive Spain managers have ignored the Basque. Spain's triumph in Euro 2008 meant there was no need for change, but the result is that Arteta may be the best uncapped player in the Premier League.
Benni McCarthy (Blackburn)
South Africa emerged from the Confederations Cup with some credit, which was more than many anticipated when coach Joel Santana named his squad. The omission of Benni McCarthy, the Bafana Bafana's second-most capped player and record scorer, created controversy. With goals at a premium, a man who has scored in two previous World Cups must come into contention. A better season for Blackburn - where Sam Allardyce has not always appeared convinced of his merits - would help.
Ashley Young (Aston Villa)
It is often said football is a game of opinions, but plenty hold Ashley Young in high esteem. Not everyone concurred when Martin O'Neill suggested the winger could be mentioned in the same breath as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi but he has enough admirers to be voted a member of the PFA Team of the Year in each of the past two seasons and to allegedly attract the attention of Barcelona, Chelsea and Tottenham. Yet Fabio Capello may privately provide some dissent: he has only selected Young three times, all as a substitute. He needs to increase his fan club by at least one over the next year.
Micah Richards (Manchester City)
The last of Micah Richards' 11 caps was also the final game of Steve McClaren's reign. Since then, the youngest defender to represent England has been confined to the Under-21s. Fabio Capello harbours reservations about a centre-back or right-back whose positional sense could be improved and a mixed season last year hardly helped his cause. Yet Richards' physical attributes mean he has much to offer and after a summer in Sweden - for the Under-21 tournament - and after recovering from swine flu, it is the time for him to challenge again.
Jack Wilshere (Arsenal)
Jack Wilshere is yet to start a Premier League game. Indeed, he has only made one, six-minute substitute appearance. But his precocious trickery and well-taken goals at the pre-season Emirates Cup, coupled with the presence of Capello in the crowd, encouraged talk of an England call-up. As Theo Walcott knows, there is a precedent for taking Arsenal ingénues to a World Cup. But, with competition from Walcott, Andrey Arshavin, Samir Nasri and Tomas Rosicky, Wilshere's first task is to establish himself in the Arsenal side.
Andy Reid (Sunderland)
Giovanni Trapattoni likes his central midfielders to be fit, ready to work from box to box while shielding the back four. That, at least, is what the Italian's first year in Ireland suggests. He appears less keen on left-footed, imaginative passers who, to the untrained eye, look overweight. In short, he doesn't seem to rate Andy Reid, who has been omitted from both the team and the squad. Whether the skilful Sunderland player can use his considerable quality to persuade Trapattoni to change his mind remains to be seen.
Heurelho Gomes (Tottenham)
Figure of fun for some and object of admiration for others, Heurelho Gomes polarises opinions. Few have endured a more awkward introduction to English football, but there were signs that the Brazilian possesses the agility to make remarkable saves and the ability to command his penalty area. Guus Hiddink, for one, is a fan, while Harry Redknapp's views have appeared to change regularly. Gomes spent the Confederations Cup on the Brazil bench, but it may only an injury to Julio Cesar for him to be in goal in the World Cup.
Fabio & Rafael da Silva (Manchester United)
Places in the Brazil team tend to be difficult to secure. But the same could be said for slots in the Manchester United side and there is a school of thought that Rafael da Silva will emerge as the regular right-back this season. That would be enough for many countries but Brazil possess arguably the two best in the world in their position - Maicon and Daniel Alves. Fabio da Silva may find rather less competition on the left flank for his country, but Patrice Evra presents a considerable obstacle at club level.