By the time England line up against San Marino to start another World Cup campaign, it will be close to 500 days since John Stones won his last cap.
In that time, Gareth Southgate has trawled through a variety of defensive options featuring Harry Maguire, Tyrone Mings, Joe Gomez and Eric Dier, handed debuts to Fikayo Tomori and Conor Coady, and deployed Kyle Walker on the right side of three centre-halves.
‘It hurts, it really does,’ Stones told Micah Richards in a Sportsmail interview in December. ‘Playing for England… I can’t put into words what it means to me. It’s difficult when you’re not selected and you can’t contribute and be a part of it.
John Stones has had a stunning season for Manchester City and deserves an England recall
The Manchester City defender capped off a brilliant defensive display with a goal at Fulham
‘I want to be involved in the journey they are on. It has made me work ever harder. I am doing everything I can to stay in City’s team and then, hopefully, get back into the England squad.’
In fact, it will be an astonishing snub if Stones is not the first centre half inked into the squad to be named by Southgate on Thursday for qualifiers against San Marino, Albania and Poland.
He has excelled for City as they have sped clear at the top of the Premier League. Mostly in a back-four in partnership with Ruben Dias or in a back-three as deployed by Pep Guardiola at Fulham on Saturday evening.
With both Stones and Walker at his disposal, Guardiola opted for Stones on the right side, with Dias in the centre and Aymeric Laporte on the left. They helped City record another clean sheet, their 16th in 30 Premier League games, and another victory.
At 26, Stones is probably in the form of his life, the closest that England have to a world-class central defender and immersed in a winning culture at his club. Outstanding in both penalty boxes, he scored the opener, his fifth goal since the turn of the year, to apply the finish to a swerving free-kick delivered from the left flank by Joao Cancelo.
Confidence has soared since overcoming injuries and personal problems. He has altered his diet and lifestyle and is performing once more with the elegance and authority that commanded a fee of £47.5million when he left Everton for City in 2016.
‘I’ve worked really hard to get back into the team here over the last year,’ said Stones. ‘The England call-up, if it comes, is progress for what I’ve done at City and on the pitch. It has been a motivation for me.’
By the time of England’s next game it will be nearly 500 days since Stones’ made his last cap
Guardiola is behind the idea of an international recall.
‘He deserves it,’ said the City boss. ‘Gareth Southgate knows better than me what he needs but just in case it happens, the one person who will be delighted and happy about his comeback for the national team will be me. It was another great performance, apart from the goal which was so important, the way he played.’
Gabriel Jesus added the second and Sergio Aguero converted the third with a penalty, his first league goal in more than a year.
Manchester City collected three more points with the attacking gifts of Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan unused on the bench and Raheem Sterling not in the squad. ‘He’s OK,’ said Guardiola when asked if Sterling might return for tomorrow’s Champions League ‘home’ leg against Borussia Monchengladbach, in Budapest, or Saturday’s FA Cup quarter-final at Everton.
‘We will train and we will see. Now it’s perfect if we rotate six or seven players from the beginning every game. Everyone is fit. When it’s working well, it’s all “how brilliant we are in our decisions”. The route we are going to take is not to complain or say why we rotate, why the players didn’t play.
Gareth Southgate has trawled through a variety of defensive options in the absence of Stones
‘To win the Premier League and all the titles, we need everyone, everyone, everyone. We do the best for the club and the best for the team. When that happens, we can compete in all competitions for the year.’
City, five wins from the Premier League title, are on a quest to repeat the domestic Treble they won in 2019 and land their first Champions League. It shows relentless ambition. An off day and any one of the knockout competitions can escape their grasp — and yet off-days are virtually extinct.
According to Fulham boss Scott Parker, the overriding factor of their win was City’s ‘clinical nature’. It will take something special to stop them and Parker’s side, even in the afterglow of victory at Liverpool, did not have it.
‘In the last 24 games we won 23 and that’s incredible,’ said Guardiola. ‘Against Fulham we could win, lose or draw and nothing happens but now it’s two “finals” (FA Cup quarter-final and Champions League) and we are going to play as good as possible to go through in both competitions.
‘It is important in these weeks to be calm, to rest as much as possible. We’re going to try to get to the Champions League quarter-finals again. Then it’s the international break and when we come back we will start to fight for the other titles.’
MATCH FACTS AND RATINGS
Fulham (4-3-1-2): Areola 6.5; Tete 6, Andersen 5, Adarabioyo 5, Aina 6; Anguissa 6, Reed 6.5, Lemina 5.5 (Onomah 73min, 5); Loftus-Cheek 5.5 (Mitrovic 63, 5); Lookman 5, Cavaleiro 6 (Robinson 80). Subs not used: Fabri, Hector, Ream, Bryan, Maja, Kongolo. Manager: Scott Parker 6.
Manchester City (3-4-3): Ederson 6; Stones 8, Dias 7 (Garcia 75, 6), Laporte 6.5; Cancelo 6.5, Bernardo 7.5 (Fernandinho 67, 6), Rodri 6, Mendy 6.5; Torres 6, Aguero 6, Jesus 7. Subs not used: Steffen, Walker, Gundogan, Zinchenko, De Bruyne, Mahrez, Foden. Scorers: Stones 47, Jesus 56, Aguero 60 (pen). Manager: Pep Guardiola 7.
Referee: Andre Marriner 6.