Race for England World Cup places starts for Townsend, Sterling et al | Michael Cox

England suffered blow with Theo Walcott's injury, but weekend fixtures give first chance to all those hoping to step into squad

Theo Walcott's record of five goals in 36 international matches is rather underwhelming, but there is little doubt that the Arsenal's forward's absence is a significant blow for Roy Hodgson ahead of this summer's World Cup. This weekend represents a first chance for all the contenders for Walcott's place in the starting XI as well as in the squad.

Hodgson is famously uninterested in possession statistics, and instead asks his wide players to attack the opposition back four as quickly as possible. Walcott's raw speed is obvious, but he also uses the ball swiftly and efficiently, and his development into a reliable goalscorer is crucial considering England's lack of a prolific No9.

The 3-2 victory over Sweden at Euro 2012 demonstrated Walcott's quality. Replacing James Milner with England 2-1 down after an hour, Walcott immediately scored an equaliser with a long-range strike, although it took a small deflection on its way past Andreas Isaksson. More crucial was his overall impact – he drove England forward down the right, repeatedly surging into the Swedish half in a game based around territory rather than possession. His assist for Danny Welbeck's superb backheeled winner summed up his contribution.

In Walcott's absence, Hodgson will be looking at these six players as potential replacements, starting on Saturday when he will be at Manchester United v Swansea (he will also be at Everton v Norwich earlier).

Andros Townsend

Townsend is increasingly frustrating at Tottenham, where he has attempted 46 shots this season, yet has only scored from an overhit cross. Nevertheless, he's been excellent for England. On his debut against Montenegro, Townsend scored a fine late goal, but his run for Wayne Rooney's opener was more significant – he collected possession in his own half, before roaring past opponents and intelligently pulling the ball back. On international form alone, he should be in the squad.

Fixture on Saturday: Crystal Palace (h)

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

Although he endured a disappointing 2012/13 and has been injured for the majority of this campaign, Oxlade-Chamberlain remains a Hodgson favourite and made his comeback for Arsenal's Under-21s on Thursday night. He started the first Euro 2012 game against France at the age of 18, appeared in the first five World Cup qualifiers, and impressed in a 2-2 draw with Brazil in the Maracanã. Perfect for Hodgson's system, Oxlade-Chamberlain protects his defence manfully, drives forward into central positions, and has three goals in 13 caps.

Fixture on Monday: Aston Villa (a)

Raheem Sterling

Overplayed at the start of last season because of Liverpool's lack of attacking options, Sterling benefited from a period away from the spotlight for much of 2013, before returning to Liverpool's starting XI with renewed energy and hunger. A consistently dangerous player, the 19-year-old has significantly improved his final ball in the last year – he's contributed three goals and three assists in his last eight appearances, and repeatedly draws fouls from opponents in dangerous positions.

Fixture on Sunday: Stoke (a)

Aaron Lennon

The Tottenham winger would be appearing at his third consecutive World Cup, although he has yet to start under Hodgson because stylistically he isn't quite right. A superior dribbler to Walcott, Lennon is an old-fashioned right-winger who takes on full-backs and whips in crosses, but England lack a classic No9. Indeed, without a prolific forward, Hodgson needs goals from wide – but Lennon hasn't scored in 21 caps, and averages only three league goals a season for Spurs.

Fixture on Saturday: Crystal Palace (h)

James Milner

Although he's equally comfortable on the left, Milner started four of England's 10 qualifiers on the right, more than Walcott (3), Townsend (2) or Oxlade-Chamberlain (1). Considered a steady, reliable option, some of his recent Manchester City appearances – particularly in the 3-2 win away at Bayern Munich – have demonstrated his technical quality. Hodgson has often used forward Danny Welbeck on the left, which necessitates a more cautious player on the opposite flank, so Milner is the obvious option.

Fixture on Sunday: Newcastle (a)

Ashley Young

His reputation has suffered over the past 18 months, both because of underperformance and frequent diving, but Hodgson has previously put his faith in Young – he played every minute at Euro 2012. It is difficult to see the Manchester United winger as a direct replacement for Walcott, because he generally starts on the left flank, and cuts inside. Nevertheless, he could benefit if contenders for his left-sided role, like Milner, are played on the right.

Fixture on Saturday: Swansea (h) © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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