This is one of the most open team selections for a while - I think the first time since we signed Castillo that all of our midfielders are available. Presuming that Hart, the back four and Benjani are all guaranteed their places, we have Hamann, Johnson, Fernandes, Ireland, Castillo, Petrov, Elano and Vassell competing for the remaining five spots.
The most certain to start of those eight is Martin Petrov. Our most consistent attacking player this season, badly missed during his suspension, he will surely play on the left. From here, the jigsaw puzzle is further confused. Ireland, Elano and Castillo could all claim to play in either the middle or on the right. So the team cannot be constructed piece by piece, but only with a constant balancing act.
In central midfield, we have the choice between playing either all three of Johnson, Gelson and Hamann; or two of them with one of the more attacking players. One could certainly make a convincing argument for dropping one of those three and returning Elano to his trequartista role. We did have Hamann/Fernandes/Johnson in the middle at Reading and lost 2-0. After cautious 0-0s against Wigan and Bolton, perhaps the solidity/creativity trade-off ought to rebalanced somewhat. Convincing as that may be in the abstract, when viewed against the available players it is less strong.
The reality is that Hamann, Fernandes and Johnson are three of our best players, and not so similar that they can't all play together. With Didi and Gelson behind him Johnson is able to get up and support the forwards. Hamann's willingness to play and beat Stephen Hunt/Kevin Nolan types at their own game is vital in these sorts of games: how I wish he'd played last Saturday and got the despicable Nolan sent off. Finally, Elano has not looked good in that position for months.
So, only the wide right position remains: with Elano, Castillo, Ireland and Vassell in contention. Apart from anything else, not playing Elano or Ireland in the middle means that they are more likely to play on the right, and therefore Vassell is less likely to start which is a good in itself. I'm yet to be convinced that any of these is a top quality right winger, but as Donald Rumsfeld said: "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time." I think SGE's hints in his press conference suggest that it will be Elano, and that's probably the best choice, by elimination if nothing else. Ireland's not a winger, Castillo's not right sided (or Leo Messi) and Vassell's not a Premier League footballer.
That leaves a bench of: Isaksson, Sun, Ireland, Castillo, Vassell. But Sun might not be available after international duty (I'm presuming Caicedo won't quite be ready, or at least less ready than Vassell). If Sun can't make it maybe we'll put one of the Academy defenders on the bench.
Prediction? Can't see past 0-0. In our seven remaining matches I'd be shocked if we scored more than five or six goals.