Beckham's restoration to be confirmed in the centre
34-year-old set to be given first competitive start by Capello as holding midfielder
The last time David Beckham started a World Cup game was back in July 2006 on the day that the whole Sven Goran Eriksson project collapsed in defeat to Portugal in Gelsenkirchen. It was the game that was supposed to signal the beginning of the end for Beckham but, three years on, the man who just will not quit is likely to start a World Cup qualifier for his country at the age of 34.
Tonight against Andorra, cap No 112 for Beckham promises to be a starting place in the centre of the England midfield proving that even at this ripe old age for a footballer he can still reinvent himself as easily as he once switched hairstyles. Yes, he is there by default because Gareth Barry is suspended and Michael Carrick is injured but even so when Fabio Capello is in charge, nothing is done on the basis of sentimentality.
If Capello picks Beckham to start it will be only the third time he has done so in the 14 games he has been in charge and the first time in a competitive match. Beckham in a central holding role is not new in terms of England. He was played there for a two-game spell in September 2005 when Eriksson, in consultation with his players, was searching for a way to shoehorn Beckham into a 4-5-1 formation in the aftermath of a dreadful 4-1 away defeat to Denmark a month earlier.
For two games, away against Wales and Northern Ireland in World Cup qualifiers, Beckham was the holding player in a five-man midfield. When England lost to Northern Ireland at Windsor Park on a night of utter humiliation, the experiment was quietly shelved and Beckham restored to the right wing. Almost four years on, the comeback is a strong possibility.
The problem that England endured when Beckham did play in the centre for his country almost four years ago was that he was still fixated with hitting long balls out to the wings in much the same way as he had hit crosses when he was a winger. His performances made Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard virtual bystanders. Under Capello, you can only assume that he will be kept under much tighter restrictions.
It is not the first time that Capello has played Beckham in that role: when he was in charge at Real Madrid, Beckham played in the centre of midfield, although only twice according to the England manager. "I saw some games that he played for Milan in this position, with three midfielders, I like it," Capello said. "It's not a problem for David."
Even against the feeble Andorra team, ranked 196th by Fifa, one place below Aruba, Capello said yesterday that he would not consider resting his big names – other than those on bookings – to experiment with those fringe players such as Ashley Young and James Milner. This is the unyielding Capello creed that even games against the plankton of international football must be won before changes are made.
"At this moment, the most important thing is to win," Capello said. "We have time to experiment once we're sure of getting to South Africa. I think 100 per cent, we can experiment when we have qualified." At the rate that England are progressing they may well seal that qualification against Croatia in September which would leave the games against Ukraine and Belarus, as well as the rest of the friendlies, as scope for Capello to try different ideas.
Whether Beckham would ever be called upon to perform a holding midfield job come the 2010 World Cup finals – or whether he will even be in that squad – is up for debate. The bottom line is that Capello's England is a very different squad to the one that went to the last World Cup where Beckham refused to play at right-back in the first knockout game against Ecuador and Owen Hargreaves had to be pressed into doing it.
Under Eriksson, and Steve McClaren, the team shape changed according to the players available. Even in that game against Ecuador, four matches into a World Cup finals, Eriksson switched from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 because he had lost Michael Owen to injury in the previous match. Under Capello the team has found a way of playing and the manager does not change just to allow players to play where they prefer.
The England manager was, however, eager to point out that the goalkeeper David James, injured and out of the two end of season qualifiers, had dropped into the Grove Hotel in Watford to have dinner with the squad. That, Capello said, showed there was a good spirit. Unlike his team-mates, however, James would have been able to top up later if he was still hungry after one of the famously spartan Capello-era lunches.
Eleven days in Camp Capello is a long time for anyone, especially Premier League stars not accustomed to being restricted to their hotel rooms. They will be asked, as ever, to prepare for Andorra tonight as they would if they were playing Brazil and even though it will only be a victory over a ski resort, seven qualifying wins from seven is no bad start for an England manager.
Beck to the future: David's central spell
9 Feb 2005 Netherlands (h) D 0-0: Impressive showing as captain.
3 Sep 2005 Wales (a) W 1-0: Man-of-match display from deep.
7 Sep 2005 N Ireland (a) L 1-0: Spent half the game trying to calm Wayne Rooney. Clipped bar early on.
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