It was the lowest moment of Fabio Capello's time in charge of the England team when, in his final press conference of the World Cup finals last summer, at the obligatory post-mortem on yet another busted English dream, he was asked to identify the new young players who could transform his squad. Among those names that the England manager grasped at desperately that day were Bobby Zamora and Michael Dawson, neither of whom could be described as young or, with respect, likely to transform the national team.
Only 15 months on and the landscape of English football has changed so dramatically that yesterday the key question being asked of Capello was whether he was ready to throw in one or more of a trio of young players whom, the smart money says, he would not have been able to name had they been presented to him last summer. Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley were not on Capello's radar then but he was not the only one.
In reality, Smalling has the best chance of starting in the Vasil Levski Stadium tonight – his performances at right-back so far this season have impressed Capello. "Look, he surprised me when he played in the Community Shield against Manchester City," the England manager said. "The four games that he's played at right-back, he's played really well. He's improved a lot and I saw him always play like a central defender [before]. He is really good, really good. He's playing with confidence. In the first 30 minutes it was so-so, but he improved and improved. I think he could [play there for England]."
Capello said that "one is ready" – he would not specify but appeared to be talking about Smalling while "one is probably a risk" – likely to be Jones. "He [the latter] hasn't played at this level in so important games with the national team. And when you play with the club, important games, you know the players who play with you, their movement, where you receive the ball. Here it's different. You play with the other team-mates, but sometimes you are alone. This is a big difference."
England cannot afford any more slip-ups in qualification from Group G following their draw with Switzerland at Wembley in June. Bulgaria are out of the running for Euro 2012 but that does not mean it will not be awkward tonight.
Capello does have a rejuvenated Wayne Rooney at his disposal and pretty good options if Darren Bent is not fit to start tonight. "He [Rooney] is happy," Capello said. "It's different. You can see in every moment with him that he's really happy. It makes a big difference. He's an important player."