Exactly a year ago, Bulgaria did a huge favour to a beleaguered Fabio Capello when their unexpectedly tame performance at Wembley allowed his England team to open the European Championship campaign with a 4-0 victory after having sunk as low in public estimation as could be remembered. By following that with a 3-1 success in Switzerland four days later, England appeared to have taken early control of Group G.
But two subsequent draws at home have left them in need of another September double, starting in Sofia on Friday. "Bulgaria and Wales will be really important games," Capello admitted in a London hotel two days ago. "I think we need to win these games, because we play the last game against [joint leaders] Montenegro."
The saving grace in the early matches last season was that by a combination of good judgement and good fortune, Capello found some new players and a reliable system for his final competition before retirement. Now there is a further bonus, with the Under-21 squad and Manchester United having given valuable experience to four more young contenders, all of whom were included in a provisional squad of 30 for the forthcoming matches. It is possible, if unlikely, that all four will make the cut when the squad is trimmed to 23 tonight, and Capello had kind words for all of them.
On Chris Smalling: "He has improved a lot and in a new position. I remember him as a centre-back, now as a right-back he is interesting."
On Phil Jones: "So young, so good. He's a really good talent, like [Jack] Wilshere. A player who has played well at every level. In the last game against Tottenham he was very confident, asked for the ball. It's not easy a player as young playing with such big confidence. Potentially he's fantastic but he needs to play more games with Man United."
On Danny Welbeck: "He played against Ghana for 10 minutes and is really interesting. He matched very well with Rooney with his movement off the ball."
On Tom Cleverley: "I saw him last year [at Wigan] but when you play for Man United it's different – you need to win. A really interesting player. He's unlucky because I like to see new players in a friendly, but we didn't play against Holland. He's intelligent on the pitch and can play in front of the back four or further forward."
Sir Alex Ferguson will be pleased to learn, after Friday's rant about the Football Association's treatment of United, that the governing body is suitably grateful for his continued nurturing of young English talent. "Sir Alex surprised me because he changed the team completely," Capello said admiringly.
As he implied, there is probably not room for Cleverley this time, even with Steven Gerrard and Wilshere still injured. Theo Walcott is fit to return and has been forgiven for his mild criticisms in a premature autobiography of the England manager, who told him in Udine last week: "I prefer you as a player to a writer!"
Welbeck is among five strikers in contention; Capello name-checked him with Rooney, Darren Bent, Andy Carroll and Jermain Defoe, conspicuously not mentioning Peter Crouch.
Like Welbeck, Jones was originally named in Stuart Pearce's Under-21 squad due to begin a new European campaign of their own at Watford on Thursday, and he could also possibly be promoted. Unless Rio Ferdinand is declared unfit, that would put a question mark over Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott, whose Manchester City team-mate Micah Richards may now lose out to Smalling.
With both Manchester clubs, Arsenal and Tottenham playing this afternoon, the likelihood is that there will be an injury or two to simplify matters. Capello watched Bent play for Aston Villa yesterday and will take in City's visit to Tottenham today, when a welcome number of Englishmen should be on parade. The home team's Kyle Walker is one who will need to shine if he is to stay ahead of Smalling as the replacement at right-back for the injured Glen Johnson.
In the wake of Walcott's comments, the manager will repeat his demand for respect: "When I speak with the players I always said: 'My role is to be manager, your role is to be player, I respect you and you respect me and all my staff'." His part of that deal, however, does not involve indulging any player struggling early in the season. Class may be permanent, form merely temporary, but loss of the latter quality is of no use to an international manager, as one or two players may discover tonight.
England squad (probable): Hart (Manchester City), Green (West Ham), Stockdale (Ipswich); Smalling (Manchester Utd), Walker (Tottenham), Terry (Chelsea), Ferdinand (Man Utd) or Jones (Man Utd), Cahill (Bolton), Jagielka (Everton), Lescott (Man City), Cole (Chelsea), Baines (Everton); Walcott (Arsenal), Young (Man Utd), Downing (Liverpool), Milner (Man City), Barry (Man City), Lampard (Chelsea), Parker (West Ham) or Carrick (Man Utd); Rooney (Man Utd), Bent (Aston Villa), Carroll (Liverpool), Defoe (Tottenham) or Welbeck (Man Utd).Reuse content