For about 15 seconds yesterday evening, David Bentley was back in the frame to play for England as Fabio Capello suffered one of those memory lapses that used to affect Sven Goran Eriksson – who often struggled when it came to those annoying little details like the names of his players.
"We have Bentley, also, who is injured," said Capello, before frowning and correcting himself. "No, not Bentley... [the one] from Middlesbrough... [Stewart] Downing. He played five games for me but is injured now. I have spoken with Martin O'Neill and he needs six months."
Got there in the end, Fabio. Had it been Eriksson stumbling over the identities of his players there would have been a collective groan at his trademark lack of attention to detail but this is Capello, who can be forgiven a slip every now and then. He has led England to seven straight World Cup qualifying victories and he has restored confidence in the national team to the extent that against the Netherlands tonight there is optimism of a result against the team ranked third in the world.
There was an insight into the Capello method from John Terry that got the measure of just how highly the players regard their manager. "You come in at half-time and he [Capello] hates it if the lads are talking or shouting at each other. Or arguing. He wants everyone to sit there for two or three minutes, take it in and absorb it, then approach things in a calmer way. Basically, he comes in, wants us to be calm so he can then go mad himself."
The prospect of Capello waiting until he had silence – in fact, demanding silence – before he launched a rant of his own is probably exactly the kind of authoritarian approach that most long-suffering England supporters want from their manager. Terry also talked about Capello using "the hairdryer" – the old Sir Alex Ferguson approach – and "the kick up the backside" which will strike a chord with those who believe the team has been overindulged in the past.
But it clearly goes a bit deeper than just ranting and raving. The Amsterdam Hilton, where England are staying, was the setting for John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Bed-In" peace protest 40 years ago. More recently, in November 2006, it was the scene of one of Steve McClaren's more brutal press conferences. The then England manager tried in vain to cover up a growing schism with assistant Terry Venables without much success and left looking traumatised.
It is hard to imagine Capello struggling to hold things together with an aura that has been strengthened with every good result. With Ashley Young and David Beckham both starting tonight he does not have his first string out, but he does have a chance to set down another benchmark. The Dutch are ranked third in the world by Fifa, they are already qualified for the next World Cup finals and, like France and Spain before them, they represent another serious test of England's progress.
Capello's England have lost to France (ranked ninth in the world) and Spain (ranked second) and beaten Germany (ranked fourth). Tonight they play a team with aspirations of doing well in South Africa next summer, especially if they can reproduce some of the sparkling form that characterised their performances in the early stages of Euro 2008.
Capello acknowledged that a good performance tonight at the Amsterdam Arena will give England more evidence of where they figure in the world order. "For me, this game is really important to understand where we are: the level of the players, the confidence of the players, what we have to do to get to this level," he said.
"I have to improve on different situations the team finds itself in," he said. "Sometimes, we play 20 minutes very well. Sometimes we sleep a little bit. At other times, we don't play with the same aggression at the same moment. We have to play 90 minutes like the [best] 20 minutes we play. That's a really important step.
"It's about consistency in performance. We can do this. But, also, I think it is about the opponents. We are a really good team who must play with our style, but sometimes we play against really important teams. So we have to play with intelligence."
What Capello is saying is that some of the teams that England could potentially face – provided they make it to South Africa next summer – will be better sides than them. In that category fall Spain, France, possibly even the Dutch, but since he took the job Capello has always been confident that on one given day his team can adapt and find a way to beat a side of superior quality.
Like England, the Netherlands have won seven qualifiers out of seven and they will have a midfield of Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Rafael van der Vaart with Wesley Sneijder waiting in the wings. This was the team that blitzed Italy, France and Romania one summer ago and if England have aspirations of being a counter-attacking team with pace on the wings – which Young will provide – then the Netherlands are no bad template.
Beating Germany in Berlin, however, has changed some of the attitudes around the team, Terry said. "Players would be lying if they told you there wasn't any fear coming into big games with England [before]," he said. "But it's been wiped away. We've overcome that mental barrier. We had to, and we've done that. We don't come here overconfident. We just want to get the most out of what is a big game. It's an important time for the players in the squad ahead of the qualifying games, despite the timing of the match."
He also returned to that humbling 2-0 defeat to Spain in Seville in February which, Terry said, "showed us where we wanted to be". That was six months ago and time travels fast in international football. A win against Croatia next month and England will have qualified for South Africa and the clock keeps ticking as they seek to close the gap on the best international teams in the world, continuing tonight.
Going Dutch: Memorable games between the sides
*England 1 Netherlands 3
(European Championship, June 1988)
The Netherlands eased past Bobby Robson's side in this group game in Dusseldorf on their way to winning the 1988 European Championship. Marco van Basten gave them the lead in the first half then captain Bryan Robson dragged England level after the break before Van Basten struck twice more, with marker Tony Adams struggling to get anywhere near him.
*England 0 Netherlands 0
(World Cup, June 1990)
Robson's side made up for their 1988 embarrassment, securing a hard-fought draw against the Dutch in this group match in Cagliari. It was a much improved display by England after a 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland in their first group game, helped by Robson's decision to bring in Mark Wright as a sweeper. Stuart Pearce found the net late on with a free-kick, only for the goal to be disallowed.
*England 2 Netherlands 2
(World Cup qualifier, April 1993)
The Netherlands fought back from 2-0 down at Wembley to secure a precious qualifying point on the road to the 1994 World Cup finals. John Barnes opened the scoring with a stunning free-kick after just 65 seconds, then David Platt extended England's lead 22 minutes later. Dennis Bergkamp pulled a goal back with an exquisite finish but Graham Taylor's side looked to be hanging on before Des Walker brought down Marc Overmars with three minutes to go, Peter van Vossen converting the penalty. Walker's England career never really recovered.
*Netherlands 2 England 0
(World Cup qualifier, Oct 1993)
Ronald Koeman was involved in controversy at both ends in the crucial return in Rotterdam. With the game goalless after an hour gone, the centre-back pulled down Platt inside the penalty area only for a free-kick to be awarded. Three minutes later the referee ordered a Dutch free-kick on the edge of the England area to be retaken and Koeman curled a fine effort past David Seaman. Six minutes later Bergkamp added a second and England were as good as out, Taylor left to rant impotently at the fourth official; "Hey, tell your pal [the referee] that he's just cost me my job."
*England 4 Netherlands 1
(European Championship, June 1996)
Buoyed up by beating Scotland three days before, Terry Venables' side turned on the style to overwhelm Guus Hiddink's fractious outfit at Wembley. Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham each scored twice to put them 4-0 up, but a late Patrick Kluivert goal took the Dutch through to the quarter-finals at the expense of the luckless Scots.
Sam CunninghamReuse content