The big question for Fabio Capello's England team: will they ever be a match for Spain and their brilliant passing game? The answer from Capello yesterday: "If you want to play tennis like Rafael Nadal, you can't. If you want to play like Roger Federer, you can't. It depends on the players."
With that, the England manager boiled down the great debate to a question of pragmatism. He will develop a style that suits this team best and, figuratively speaking, there will be no toreador backhands or dashing passing shots against more accomplished opponents. If England want to beat the European champions then they will have to do it the Ivan Lendl way, sticking to their strengths and avoiding anything expansive. If the Italian has learned one thing in 17 months it is this: he knows his team's limitations. Tonight England face a very different opponent to the Spanish: in fact, Kazakhstan represent the equivalent of one of those low-ranking Wimbledon seeds who are easily dismissed in the early rounds on one of the outer courts. If only the playing surface in Almaty was like SW19, and last night the Fifa delegates were promising that the longish grass here will get one more trim before the match tonight.
With the snow-topped Zaliskaya Alatay mountains in the distance behind the stadium, Almaty feels a long way from the World Cup in South Africa and the Spain team that everyone from Capello to Wayne Rooney says are the best in the world. After that chastening friendly defeat in Seville in February and Manchester United's comprehensive defeat to the Xavi Hernandez-Andres Iniesta axis in Rome, it is hard not to let thoughts drift that way.
Even John Terry, occasionally the most blindly optimistic of Englishmen, said that the England team "all agree we're not on the level as Spain." He said: "Look at Barcelona in the Champions League, they were unbelievable technically. But we can play as a side. The manager has encouraged us from day one to play right from the back. He hates it when we play the long ball. He screams at the lads, 'No long ball, no long ball.'
"I know as a defender that you need the long ball sometimes to turn the opposition round and squeeze them up. He gives us a bollocking at half-time if we do it on the pitch. We've got the players to get the ball down and play. We're not on the level of Spain, but we're not too far behind."
Whether they can match Spain yet, the last two World Cup qualifiers of the season – Kazakhstan tonight and Andorra on Wednesday – come at the end of a great season for Capello. Five wins in five qualifying games thus far, the highest scorers in European qualifying. But already you can tell that Capello's mind is moving on to how he will shape this England team, how they will play in a tournament where he will have just one shot at turning around decades of failure.
This time he volunteered the advice he has been given by Luis Aragones, another grumpy disciplinarian coach whose Spain team won Euro 2008 in such style. "I went to meet him in Turkey [where Aragones coaches Fenerbahçe]," Capello said. "Aragones decided on the system he used with Spain because the players are small, not big. He decided on this and they won the European Championships for the first time. You have to play the style for the players you have."
It was asked of Capello which tennis player he would compare his England team to now and, seemingly having racked his brain for an English player of any note, he replied that it was Nadal. Presumably for the power rather than the precision. Having implied that it was on strength that he would have to rely to make England a force, Capello then confused his players in training by deploying Shaun Wright-Phillips at right-back for much of the final session last night.
The England manager always conspires to throw one curveball when it comes to his selections although Wright-Phillips at right-back ahead of Glen Johnson is not expected to be on the teamsheet tonight. There is, however, only one fully-fit right-back available to Capello. Gary Neville, in the squad for the first time under the Italian, trained on his own yesterday with heavy strapping on his ankle.
With three qualifiers left after this season, the style of Capello's England team is starting to emerge. They cannot pass the ball like Spain, that is obvious, but they still demonstrated the kind of patience against Kazakhstan in October that ensured their opponents tired eventually and they could score goals in the second half – five of them. They were sufficiently composed to come back to win the game after Ukraine equalised at Wembley in April.
If there is a problem it is that once again Rio Ferdinand and Terry will not be playing together in the centre of defence for Capello's side. This time it is the United man who is missing with more of his back problems. Against Kazakhstan it is not so much of a concern but the statistic that Capello has had both his first choice centre-backs available for just five out of the 13 games he has been in charge means it is a worry.
Under duress Terry halfheartedly suggested yesterday that Jamie Carragher should rethink his international retirement, although that is evidently not about to happen. He bemoaned the vulnerability of his position. "As a centre-half it is difficult, you throw yourself into a lot more situations where you can pick up injuries," Terry said. "It's taken its toll as well, over the years. If you're a midfielder or a striker, you maybe don't need to put your body on the line as much."
The Icelandic referee and his officials were due to arrive in Almaty last night, 24 hours later than scheduled after their flight was cancelled. The England players have been out here since Wednesday, ordered by Capello not to snooze on their eight-hour flight so they would adjust quickly to Almaty time when they arrived. As ever, no one could accuse Capello of not being prepared for this match. It is whether he can turn England into a force capable of beating Spain within 12 months that matters.
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