Capello keen to pick Milner

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Aston Villa threaten to overturn the dominance of the big four in the Premier League this season and Fabio Capello is taking notice. The England manager returned from his holiday in South Africa yesterday to announce that the latest young talent on his radar is James Milner, the record-holder for Under-21 caps but as yet never picked for the senior side.

Reflecting on a first year of great success as England manager, Capello said that Milner would have been in one of his squads already were it not for injuries, following in the footsteps of his Aston Villa team-mates Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor. Although Capello said that he had watched Milner on occasions, it is testament to the growing influence of Under-21s manager Stuart Pearce.

Pearce has become a trusted member of Capello's staff and it was evident that he has been pushing Milner's case with the England manager. "He [Milner] was close to being in the squad when he was at Newcastle but was injured before we could pick him," Capello said. "I saw a game for Newcastle against Liverpool but he was injured after half an hour [at Anfield on 8 March]. He's a very interesting player like some of the others.

"It's very important for us that Stuart Pearce knows all the players very well and we always speak about these players. He's been good for the Under-21s. I'm very happy for players that play with Aston Villa. They are young players and are performing. The other young player I like is Milner. He's the future, my future."

That was a bold statement about a player who is, theoretically, way back in the queue for the right-wing spot behindplayers such as Theo Walcott, Shaun Wright-Phillips, David Bentley and David Beckham ahead of February's friendly against Spain. But while there was encouragement for Milner that his chance will come, there was the opposite for Michael Owen, despite England's 40-goal man having scored against Portsmouth on Sunday.

Having left the Newcastle striker out of all three of his England squads this season, Capello said that he had not even seen Owen's goal against Portsmouth. "I read about him, he scored goals in the last two games [for Newcastle] and you know my answer. Always the door is open for all people. Michael Owen is one of the important players for England. It is the same. First of all he has to be fit when I decide the squad."

It was the same verdict for Beckham, too; all Capello could promise was that the former England captain would not be picked out of "sympathy". In terms of the Premier League season, Capello said that Manchester United's trip to Japan this week for the Fifa Club World Cup would be physically draining, but pointed out that he had twice won the former version of the competition with Milan and then gone on to win the league

Unusually he picked out the friendly defeat to France in Paris in March as a turning point in his regime. It was Capello's second game in charge and a performance against an under-strength French side that looked largely unconvincing. "I think the most important thing we did was when we lost against France," he said. "We were in the dressing room and I said to the players, 'I'm happy because you made a step forward'.

"The players thought I was crazy but I was happy because we played against France, World Cup runners-up, in Paris and for half an hour played very well. When we can play for half an hour we can play like that for the whole game. This is why we went forward."

Since then Capello has won all four World Cup qualifiers and beaten Germany in Berlin. "In training the players were fantastic, physical, they did everything with confidence," Capello said. "But playing at Wembley they were not the same players. I understood what happened in their minds. That's what makes the next game at Wembley very important."