Capello learns kids are all right as United duo push for starting places

Meteoric rise of Smalling and Jones gives England plenty of options in a must-win qualifier that should be the ideal stage for Rooney

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It was the lowest moment of Fabio Capello's time in charge of the England team when, in his final press conference of the World Cup finals last summer, at the obligatory post mortem on yet another busted English dream, he was asked to identify the new young players who could transform his squad. Among those names that the England manager grasped at desperately that day were Bobby Zamora and Michael Dawson, neither of whom could be described as young or, with respect, likely to transform the national team.

Only 15 months on and the landscape of English football has changed so dramatically that here yesterday, the key question being asked of Capello was whether he was ready to throw in one or more of a trio of young players whom, the smart money says, he would not have been able to name had they been presented to him last summer. Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley were not on Capello's radar then but he was not the only one.

The key young player named by Capello in South Africa that day was Jack Wilshere, who would be starting in tonight's Euro 2012 qualifier against Bulgaria if he was fit. The others were Adam Johnson, who is in this England squad, and Kieran Gibbs and Gabriel Agbonlahor both of whom, through injury or club form, are not with Capello this week. "Where are the young players?" Capello had asked that day. Well, they have arrived although perhaps not those he expected.

In reality, Smalling has the best chance of starting in the Vasil Levski Stadium tonight – his performances at right-back so far this season have impressed Capello. "Look, he surprised me when he played in the Community Shield against Manchester City," the England manager said. "The four games that he's played at right-back, he's played really well. He's improved a lot and I saw him always play like a central defender [before]. He is really good, really good. He's playing with confidence. In the first 30 minutes it was so-so, but he improved and improved. I think he could [play there for England]."

As for Jones, there is a place up for grabs in the centre of defence alongside John Terry which could go one of three ways. The conservative choice would be Joleon Lescott but given his left-sided preference, Gary Cahill or Jones might complement Terry better. Cahill, with more experience, is the favourite although he has only three caps, of which only one was a start, against Ghana in March. It might not take much for Capello to wake up this morning and decide to take a risk on Jones.

Capello said that "one is ready" – he would not specify but appeared to be talking about Smalling while "one is probably a risk" – likely to be Jones. "He [the latter] hasn't played at this level in so important games with the national team. And when you play with the club, important games, you know the players who play with you, their movement, where you receive the ball. Here it's different. You play with the other team-mates, but sometimes you are alone. This is a big difference."

It has been a meteoric rise for Jones – especially when you hear Terry say that he knows the Manchester United man is after someone's place in the team, and that it might well be his own. By the time England went to the World Cup finals last summer, Jones had made just nine Premier League appearances for his former club Blackburn Rovers. Even now he only has 38 league appearances under his belt, but then talent always has a way of propelling the best to the forefront.

By way of comparison, Terry's coming-of-age game for England was as a 22-year-old in the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium in Istanbul in October 2003 in a Euro 2004 qualifier against Turkey. Travelling English fans were banned, the atmosphere was hostile to say the least and in the pre-match anthem line-up Terry looked terrified, but came through with flying colours. England drew 0-0 and qualified.

Jones is just 19. By way of comparison, Tony Adams had a breakthrough game similar to Terry against Turkey in Istanbul. He was 20 years old in April 1987 and winning just his second cap in an England team that got a 0-0 draw in a Euro 88 qualifier. There are precedents that are similar to Jones' situation but it is hard to think of a defender as young as him being thrust into a competitive international with so much riding on it.

Capello was at pains to remind everyone yesterday that although, after the start of the Premier League season, tonight's game may seem like a sideshow, it is crucial nonetheless. England cannot afford any more slip-ups in qualification from Group G following their draw with Switzerland at Wembley in June. Bulgaria are out of the running for Euro 2012 but that does not mean it will not be awkward tonight. It so often is for England.

That said, Capello has won all his qualifying games for the last World Cup and these Euro 2012 qualifiers away from home, bar the game against Ukraine in Dnipro in October 2009 by which time the side had already secured a place in South Africa. He also has a rejuvenated Wayne Rooney at his disposal and pretty good options if Darren Bent is not fit to start tonight alongside the Manchester United man.

Capello has always tried to give the impression that England do still have a competitive team without Rooney although he does not always convince. "He [Rooney] is happy," he said. "It's different, probably something to do with his hair – this is a joke. You can see in every moment with him that he's really happy. It makes a big difference [to the squad]. He's a really important player. We know the value of Rooney. Also, the players know Rooney at the top of his form can beat his opponent and other teams."

Picking Rooney, Ashley Young and even Theo Walcott, in form this season, is no hardship for Capello. Even in midfield he has a good variety of players. The chances are he will stick with the conservative approach and leave Jones on the bench tonight. But even, the very fact he is considering playing him shows how far the young generation have come in a year.

Three key confrontations: Where tonight's match will be won or lost

Stiliyan Petrov v Wayne Rooney

The Aston Villa captain is due to equal a national record by winning his 102nd cap for Bulgaria. It will be an important part of his job As one of the two defensive midfielders to prevent Rooney from repeating the havoc he wrought in making all four goals when England beat Bulgaria at Wembley at the start of the campaign a year ago.

Ivelin Popov v Scott Parker

Popov is an attacking midfielder for Gaziantepspor in Turkey, who played further forward at Wembley 12 months ago, when he seemed to be on the verge of joining Blackburn Rovers. Parker, if given the nod by Fabio Capello ahead of Gareth Barry, will have to protect England's back four and watch the lively Popov's incursions.

Martin Petrov v Chris Smalling

Bolton Wanderers against Manchester United as Petrov – sent off on his debut against England in 1999 – tests United's new right-back with his pace and dribbling. Smalling has shown up well in every game this season in his new position, starting with a nerveless performance in the Community Shield.

Steve Tongue