Fabio Capello hinted yesterday for the first time that he is prepared to ditch Emile Heskey from his World Cup starting XI and play Wayne Rooney in attack with Steven Gerrard in a major departure from the standard line-up that got England through qualifying.
For the first time in training in Austria yesterday, Capello experimented with Aaron Lennon on the left wing, a role he has occupied for his club in the past, and Theo Walcott on the right, with James Milner and Frank Lampard in the centre of midfield. He played Gerrard behind Rooney in a formation that is at odds with the system previously used to accommodate Heskey.
Of the starting XI that Capello has used throughout qualification, Heskey looks the most vulnerable because of his poor form at club level, where he last started for Aston Villa 10 games ago against Sunderland on 24 March. Having lost his place to John Carew in the Villa first team, he has not scored since February.
For Gerrard it would mean a return to the more familiar role that he has played in recent seasons at Liverpool, just behind Fernando Torres, when injuries have permitted. It also relies upon Lennon being able to deliver from his weaker left side. Lennon has never played there for England under Capello but the Italian is an admirer of the winger, as he is of Walcott.
As for Peter Crouch, the striker who has 20 goals in 37 international caps for England, it does beg the question exactly what he has to do to earn a starting place. It is expected that Capello will still take Heskey as part of his final 23 players, with the only decision being who to select from Jermain Defoe and Darren Bent – with the former very much the favourite.
Increasingly it would seem that Capello has Milner in mind for the holding midfield role should Gareth Barry not regain his fitness in time to be worth including in the squad. That puts the Aston Villa midfielder, recently converted from a winger, ahead of more established central midfielders such as Michael Carrick, Tom Huddlestone and Scott Parker.
It is early days yet and Capello is anxious to have more than one system of playing at his disposal before his squad start the tournament.
The mood has been good in the camp and there is a feeling that the isolation from families and media is already paying dividends. At this stage of preparation for the three previous tournaments that England played in, they were taken away with their families by the then manager Sven Goran Eriksson (Dubai in 2002; Sardinia in 2004 and Val do Lobo in Portugal in 2006).
This time there is already a consensus in the squad that they are best served being without any distractions and preparing alone. They return to England today for Monday's game against Mexico at Wembley.
Yesterday was a double session for the England players as they worked at regaining the sharpness lost in the break after the end of the season. They practised penalties at the end of the session and also shooting – the altitude in South Africa is expected to make a difference to the flight of the ball.
Among those who are the favourites to be in the seven cut from the squad on 1 June will be the Tottenham defender Michael Dawson who suffered a similar fate four years ago. The 26-year-old is still uncapped and, while he might yet get a game in the two friendlies coming up against Mexico and Japan a week on Sunday, he will have to rely on injuries to make the final 23-man squad.
Dawson said: "I got a text saying I had been included in the squad. It was a nice text. It was certainly different compared to 2006 when I got called up because Danny Murphy was injured. It would be a dream come true to play for my country. I have been in a few squads but not got on the pitch and earned a cap yet."
Meanwhile, in a boost to England's hopes of hosting the 2018 World Cup, the Spanish football authorities have not taken seriously allegations of a Russian-Spanish match-fixing plot at the World Cup voiced by the former FA chairman and head of the bid, Lord Triesman.
The Spanish secretary of state for sport, Jaime Lissavetzky, said, "I read about it and I simply had to smile. How could anyone in their right mind think that Spain, a democratic country, could do such things? We didn't attach much importance to it."
Lissavetzky was reacting to allegations made by Triesman, who quit on Sunday after the secretly recorded comments were made public by the Mail on Sunday.
He was quoted as saying rival bidders Spain and Russia were conspiring to bribe referees at next month's World Cup in South Africa and Fifa has said it is working with Interpol to see if there was any substance to the allegations.
"Everyone has the right to make a mistake," Lissavetzky, who is half-Ukrainian, said. "I know that he [Triesman] sent a letter to the Spanish and Portuguese federations apologising," he added. "Nothing more needs to be said."
Spain and Portugal have applied jointly for the right to host the World Cup in 2018 or 2022 and Lissavetzky said in the wake of the Triesman allegations it was important to ensure there was "fair play" in the bidding process. "The only thing I would ask is for fair play," he said. "We, of course, show respect to the other bids. We have always played fair here in Spain."
Russia are seen as the favourites to win the 2018 World Cup because of the backing their bid is receiving from the Russian government and the strength of the case to take the tournament to eastern Europe for the first time.
Spain hosted the World Cup in 1982 but their joint bid with Portugal is expected to win support from South American members of the Fifa selection committee. England's bid was seen to be badly damaged by Triesman's comments, but the bid team will hope Lissavetzky's view becomes widespread internationally.Reuse content