Fabio Capello is planning for his England team to take on the world champions Spain in February as part of their preparations for Euro 2012 – providing the team qualify for the tournament next summer.
The friendly at Wembley would be the last game for England before Capello announced his provisional squad for the competition and is part of the forward planning put in place by his general manager Franco Baldini, who will leave after Euro 2012 qualifying finishes in October. Baldini, whose departure was officially announced yesterday, may yet play a role in England's preparation next summer.
The 50-year-old, who has been Capello's key aide in more than three and a half years as England manager, has offered to return to work unpaid for England's February friendly and in the build-up to Euro 2012. After England's last qualifier against Montenegro on 7 October he will leave to take up the role as general manager at Roma. Should England have to qualify for Euro 2012 via the play-offs in November, Baldini would make himself available.
Baldini has already organised England putative team base and training facilities in Poland for next summer's tournament, providing they come through their last three games against Bulgaria, Wales and Montenegro. He has also set up the scouting network for the forthcoming domestic season to make sure Capello monitors all contenders for his squad.
The decision to play Spain in February is a brave one, especially as the world and European champions have a habit of giving the England team a reality check when it comes to their ambitions for tournaments. The Spain team beat Capello's England 2-0 in February 2009. Even before last year's World Cup, Capello identified Spain as the best side in international football, although he has said it would be a mistake for England to try to copy their style.
On 10 August England play the Netherlands at Wembley in their first friendly of the season and the first of their three remaining Euro 2012 qualifiers is against Bulgaria on 2 September. Before then, Capello will travel to Brazil at the end of this month to attend the 2014 World Cup finals qualifying draw.
Baldini's withdrawal from day-to-day operations with Capello marks the end of the partnership that has been crucial to the running of the England team since the Italian arrived in January 2008. A much more competent English speaker than Capello, Baldini is the key link between the England players and their often detached manager.
It has been Baldini who has taken care of the day-to-day running of England camps and making sure that Capello's wishes are implemented. Having worked under Capello at Roma and Real Madrid, Baldini has the confidence of Capello. It would be difficult to see a direct replacement among current staff, with Stuart Pearce patently unsuited to the job.
Capello said yesterday: "Franco has been given a good opportunity by Roma but I am happy he will stay with me and the England team until after the qualification programme. For me, this is very important. We can decide after this if Franco will be with us for the European Championships."
Highly regarded in European football, it was Baldini who helped Capello adapt to English football, cultivating relationships with the key clubs and getting to grips with all the peculiarities of the English game – from dealing with the players and their requirements to the obscure workings of the Football Association and even the press.
Baldini has been a long-term target for the new Roma owner Thomas DiBenedetto. He had initially wanted Baldini to start this summer but he said that he could not leave the FA before the end of last season. Originally Baldini was to do both FA and Roma jobs this season and in some respects he will if Capello decides to bring him back for the tournament build-up.
Baldini has been a key witness in the Calciopoli scandal in Italy and, as a long-term enemy of the former Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi, who was banned from football for his role in the saga, Baldini has taken a stand against the established interests in Italian football.
A former Italy Under-21 international, he has formed a working relationship with Capello that has been compared to that between Brian Clough and Peter Taylor although, sadly for England, without the same degree of success for the team. Since accepting the Roma job, Baldini has been offered similar roles at two English clubs.
The FA chairman David Bernstein said: "We respect his [Baldini's] decision to accept the offer from Roma. I would like to thank Franco for the professional way in which he has handled this and maintained his sole commitment to working with Fabio and the team until after the qualifying games."