Bridge retirement crowns Capello's month from hell
Since qualification for the World Cup England have lurched from crisis to crisis, and now they only have one fit first-choice defender
Friday 26 February 2010
In Sun City on Tuesday morning, guests at the resort's eponymous hotel would have noticed Fabio Capello and Marcello Lippi deep in discussion over breakfast, long after the tables around them had emptied and the staff had begun to clear up.
Capello, you suspect, is not the kind of man who readily seeks the advice of fellow managers, no matter how successful they might be. Perhaps he just wanted to tell Lippi about a new phenomenon he had discovered in the hitherto uncharted land of English football: that of the England team's unerring capacity to shoot themselves in the foot, just when things start to look good.
Once Capello coached arguably the greatest club side ever, the Milan team of Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit and he did so while also having to deal with the interference of owner Silvio Berlusconi. In 2001, he led Roma to their first title in 18 years. And in his second spell at Real Madrid, he dropped then reinstated David Beckham and broke Barcelona's stranglehold on the Spanish league title.
These were the adventures that any great football manager would aspire to and Capello looked all these challenges in the eye and met every one. He was obliged to manage big players and solve the kind of problems that went beyond just football, like how best to handle a capricious world statesman or to shoulder the burden for rebuilding the team that is the pride of conservative, Castilian Spain.
Which brings us to England, where the big question is not one of tactical fine-tuning or high-power politics but rather: what the hell has John Terry done now? And, leading on from that, is Leighton Baines a better bet at left-back than Stephen Warnock?
When Capello comes to write the account of his time as England manager the chapter covering January and February 2010 will be the pages to turn to first. Wayne Bridge's withdrawal from international football yesterday is only the latest blow in an England team that is disintegrating right in front of Capello's eyes just as the World Cup finals come into view.
There was qualification for the World Cup in September closely followed by injuries, affairs, broken friendships and broken marriages – as if, after two years of relatively plain sailing, the bucket has finally, definitively, been emptied on Capello's head.
Bridge's decision yesterday came as something of a surprise to Capello and his backroom staff, led by the able go-between Franco Baldini, his general manager, who had been given reason to believe that the player was minded to carry on despite his rift with Terry. They knew that Bridge was upset with Terry over his affair with Bridge's ex-fiancee Vanessa Perroncel, they just did not think he was that upset.
The lengths that they went to keep Bridge in the fold are not those one would normally expend on an understudy left-back with 36 caps in seven years. But it was not just Ashley Cole's injury that prompted them to take such action ahead of Wednesday's friendly with Egypt, it was the context of a defence that is now down to one original member of the first-choice back four.
Rio Ferdinand will not even be back for the second leg of the Champions League tie against Milan on 10 March. Cole will struggle to make the start of the tournament on 11 June with a broken ankle. Glen Johnson has spent two months out with a knee problem and still has no definitive return date, although he hopes it will be soon.
There are wider problems. Ledley King is not in contention for next week's squad despite having played in Tottenham's last two games. Jonathan Woodgate is not likely to play again this season with his perennial groin problem. Gary Cahill, who has never won a senior cap for England, may just return before the end of the season. Jamie Carragher is still militantly retired.
In fact the only first-choice member of Capello's defence who will start against Egypt on Wednesday is the recently sacked England captain, Terry, and some would say he is the biggest problem of all. Divisive, unpopular and the reason why Bridge has quit international football – yet Capello has never relied more on Terry than he does now.
The withdrawal of Bridge from international football does at least remove the extreme awkwardness from Sunday's squad meeting. The misgivings that Terry's fellow players might have about him can stay in private and there will be no embarrassment at training on Tuesday as the photographers crane to get that crucial frame in which Terry and Bridge both feature.
But the wider picture, as Capello must surely know, is of a team with problems. There is a very real chance now that Ferdinand and Cole may not be fit to go to the World Cup – and they are two of England's most experienced players. Elsewhere in the team there is Aaron Lennon's stubborn groin injury. There is the interminable wait for Owen Hargreaves to come back and the alarming dip in the form of Theo Walcott and Emile Heskey.
If there was one consoling factor in this English farce it is that at least the injuries and the one retirement have taken place with time to spare. They have not come too early that they have imperilled England's qualification campaign – and let us not forget that Steve McClaren was chronically undermined by injuries in his most important games – and not so late that Capello has been denied some wriggle room.
Perhaps that was what he was telling Lippi over breakfast on the terrace in Sun City. That managing England is just like any other adventure in his career; that of course the Royal Bafokeng training ground will be ready in time; that Ferdinand and Cole will recover and Terry will come good. He might even have told Lippi that Bridge would make himself available too.
The latter's retirement certainly came as a shock to Capello, another unpleasant surprise in a month of bad news. He will hope there are no more nasty shocks in store between now and England's first game in South Africa on 12 June.
Back catalogue: Capello's defensive problems
Rio Ferdinand Has endured an injury-plagued season and now out for two weeks with a back problem.
Ashley Cole A doubt for the World Cup after suffering fractured ankle.
John Terry Stripped of captaincy following extramarital affair.
Joleon Lescott Struggling for form and fitness since his move to Man City.
Matthew Upson Struggling for form with West Ham in relegation battle.
Wes Brown Has failed to convince on international stage.
Ledley King Degenerative knee condition prevents him playing consistently.
Micah Richards Seemingly worth no more than the Under-21 squad.
Jonathan Woodgate Suffering from a persistent groin injury.
Phil Jagielka Just returned from cruciate knee ligament injury.
Glen Johnson Has not played since injuring his knee playing for Liverpool in December.
Curtis Davies Has only played two games for Aston Villa this season after struggling with shoulder injury.
Gary Cahill Probably out for rest of season with blood clot in arm.
Luke Young Centre-back Carlos Cuellar preferred as right-back at Villa.
Jamie Carragher Renowned talent retired from internationals in 2007.
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