Fabio Capello barely knows enough English for a war of words but yesterday he hit back decisively at Slaven Bilic for his criticism of the England team by sarcastically thanking the Croatia coach for motivating his players ahead of tonight's World Cup qualifier.
England can qualify for the World Cup finals next summer if they beat Bilic's team at Wembley. After his team's victory over Belarus on Saturday, Bilic accused England of "missing some Englishness" since Capello took over 20 months ago. Having beaten Steve McClaren's England twice to deny them qualification for Euro 2008, the Croatia coach had, for a while, been the bogeyman of English football.
In response to Bilic's remarks, Capello said that his opposite number had given his players the perfect motivation to win the match. He said: "Thank you, Mr Bilic. It is the best thing you could have done. I have no need to motivate my players after this. He tried to provoke a reaction. It's a fantastic assist. Thank you."
Bilic had said that Capello's team were "definitely missing something", although he had refused to elaborate. Unfortunately for Croatia they are also definitely missing something tonight: Luka Modric, Stipe Pletikosa (the first-choice goalkeeper), Robert Kovac, and Ivan Juric are all injured while Vedran Corluka is suspended.
It is the first time that Capello has been drawn into what might loosely be described as mind games with an opposing manager. Despite losing 4-1 to Capello's England in Zagreb one year ago, Bilic has not lost the ability to get under the skin of England managers, having ensured McClaren got the sack in November 2007 with two wins in Euro 2008 qualifying.
Capello said that no matter what authoritarian changes he had made with England, they had not lost their Englishness. "I want, and I like, the English spirit," he said. "I saw this spirit in a lot of games that we've played. It's impossible to win without spirit. We suffered sometimes during first halves and played better second halves, and it would have been impossible to do that without spirit."
The Croatia game in November 2007 when England's Euro 2008 qualification fate was sealed with a 3-2 defeat was the occasion on which McClaren, with umbrella in one hand, was nicknamed "the wally with the brolly". Capello indicated he had no intention of becoming pirla con l'umbrello. "I have heard the weather is going to be dry," he said.
The Croatia players have also outlined their intention to target Wayne Rooney's brittle temperament during the game in the hope of getting the player, dismissed in the 2006 World Cup finals, sent off. Capello said: "I think that, with me, only once has Rooney done a 'not good' tackle. Only once. Afterwards, he always played well. Provocation means nothing to Rooney." That last claim is debatable, especially as Rooney committed two dreadful fouls against the United States alone in a friendly in May last year.
Capello's team remains cloaked in secrecy but once again it seems that Emile Heskey will start ahead of Jermain Defoe. Shaun Wright-Phillips is also expected to be in the first XI.
When England last played Croatia at Wembley in a qualifier, Capello was a television pundit and, in the aftermath of the defeat, he immediately threw his hat into the ring to succeed McClaren. "Me the coach of England?" he said then. "It would be a great test to overcome and I am the right age to do it."
Yesterday Capello denied he had said that and claimed he had never watched a video of that night. "That's for history," he said. "A team like England not qualifying for a Euro or World Cup is a terrible thing for the players and the clubs. For that reason the motivation we will have is more important."