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King learning to manage his injury - - just like Mensah; Who would go into an important game with a centre-back who spends most of his week training on his own? Well, Sunderland. Stuart Rayner on the lessons Ledley King and England can learn from John Mensah.

IT is the rock on which every great football team is built. The forwards grab the headlines, but winning a World Cup - or much else for that matter - without a solid central defence is nigh on impossible.

As with centre-forwards, there is far more to producing a great partnership than simply chucking the two best exponents together and waiting for everything to fall into place.

The pair need a chemistry and an understanding to complement one another. Surprisingly, given his reputation for Italian caution, defence has been Fabio Capello's Achilles heel as England manager. Twenty-four matches under his steely stare have yielded only seven clean sheets. With no goalkeeper able to command complete confidence behind them, doubts about the holding midfielder in front and a right-back to the side far better at attacking than defending, the Three Lions must be strong at the heart of defence to make the transition from World Cup nearly-men in South Africa.

It was a problem exacerbated last week when Emile Heskey clattered into captain Rio Ferdinand and ruled him out of the tournament. Capello must find a replacement from Jamie Carragher (worryingly one-paced to partner John Terry), Matthew Upson (a regular in qualifying short on form and confidence after a difficult season at West Ham United), Michael Dawson (overlooked for the original 23) and the talented but fragile Ledley King.

The latter is favourite to be crowned the winner.

Whoever gets the nod, much work is needed on the Rustenburg training pitches. The problem is, King will barely be there. The Tottenham Hotspur man would probably have been an England regular ever since impressing at Euro 2004 were it not for a legacy of chronic knee injuries.

Harry Redknapp eked 20 starts out of King in the season just gone using a carefully-tailored training programme which he will continue following with England. Most of it will be done in the gym and the swimming pool.

If Capello is wondering how he can make this unusual approach work, he could do much worse than to call Steve Bruce. As a centre-back himself, Bruce spent two years as a virtual stranger to his Manchester United defensive colleague Paul McGrath, another dogged by knee trouble.

As Sunderland's manager he has had to handle John Mensah with just as much care.

In a season-long loan at the Stadium of Light it was clear the 27-year-old was a class above his defensive colleagues, indeed most in the Premier League.

Therein lay the problem. Bruce could not afford to just leave the Ghanaian in the treatment room, so did everything he could to get "the Rock of Gibraltar" on the field.

Sometimes it worked, sometimes not.

Mensah's injuries are different to King's - a long-standing back complaint causing hamstrings and calf problems - but the solution is much the same: individual training at the start of each week before finally being allowed outdoors to work with team-mates in the run-up to a game.

Mensah, now undergoing a similar routine with Ghana, admits it is far from ideal - but says the key is making the most of the time he gets with his team-mates.

"With the situation I've been through they (Sunderland) don't give me much training and every time I go out on the pitch I struggle a lot," he said last season. "But I do as much as possible as part of the team.

"We have to play as a team. I try to keep things compact because I don't get much exercise on the pitch through the week. I try my best to do everything possible with the team.

"They keep me in the gym a lot because they know for me to play I can't have too much time on the training pitch. I come out for a short time before the game.

"They work hard, I go in a lot for extra hours of treatment. They know the problem comes from my back and if I spend a lot of time outside it's going to cause a lot of problems for me, so they keep me inside doing gym work."

King and Terry have been central defensive partners six times before, but not since a 3-0 win over Estonia three years ago. Capello will hope they find it like riding a bike.

Even when he had not got his boots on, Bruce encouraged Mensah to work on communication with his many different partners at Sunderland last season.

"I have a good relationship with my colleagues," said Mensah. "Always when we're on the training ground doing sessions we talk to each other.

"I don't go on the pitch with them but when we're inside we talk as individuals as we would outside, so I don't think there's any difficulties from not being on the pitch with them.

"It can be a little bit difficult because you're not always there to see the exact tactics the coach wants, but I'm very happy and confident with the way things are."

RETURNING BARRY WILL NOT BE RISKED AGAINST THE USA GARETH Barry has confirmed he will sit out England's World Cup opener against the United States on Saturday.

Barry (left) has made a quicker than expected recovery from the ankle injury he suffered on Manchester City duty at the beginning of May.

Having been given a deadline of June 13, the day after the United States encounter in Rustenburg, to begin full training, the 29-year-old will actually start playing a major part in all sessions from today. However, coach Fabio Capello has already declared that Barry was unlikely to face the USA for fear of jeopardising his return to full fitness. And it seems the Italian has not changed his mind.

"I've been told I'm not playing against USA to give me more time," Barry revealed last night. "I'll be back in full training with the team from tomorrow." In Barry's absence, Capello looks likely to team Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in central midfield on Saturday, with Joe Cole occupying the left-sided berth.

The trio all started yesterday afternoon's 3-0 practice match win against the Platinum Stars.

Chelsea midfielder Cole remained on the pitch after half-time, when Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey made their entrance.

CAPTION(S):

MANAGING INJURY Ledley King during England's practice match yesterday against Platinum Stars. The Tottenham defender has been carefully managing a knee injury this season, training on his own for most of the time - something which Sunderland loan star John Mensah (top right) can sympathise with
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jun 8, 2010
Words:1081
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