Capello sees England future for Almunia
After watching the Champions League semi-finals, the manager is drawing bold conclusions that could reshape the national side
Viewed through Fabio Capello's expensively-endorsed Zerorh+ spectacles, the Champions League semi-final first legs were not an overwhelming cause for celebration for the England manager, even if they were dominated by English clubs. Just seven players who featured over the two games are eligible to play for England but look on the bright side: at least none of them, Rio Ferdinand apart, picked up an injury that might rule them out of next month's World Cup qualifiers.
What did the England manager learn on his trips to the Nou Camp and Old Trafford? He may only have seen seven Englishmen on show but there was also one goalkeeper who could be eligible to put on an England shirt by the time Capello's side play the Netherlands on 12 August.
Manuel Almunia could be the England No 1
The situation from the Capello camp is very clear: he will consider picking Almunia if the Arsenal goalkeeper gets a British passport. No ifs, no buts, the mood among Capello and his staff is that once Almunia has British nationality it would be discriminatory not to pick him. The ball is in the court of the man from Pamplona. He was excellent against Manchester United on Wednesday and he is potentially the only English goalkeeper who is a first-choice for a big four club.
If Almunia is willing to get the passport – after five years in England he is eligible in July, the fifth anniversary of his arrival at Arsenal – then Capello (below) will back him over all the inevitable voices of protest, even if they come from within the Football Association. Like Eduardo da Silva (once Brazilian, now Croatian) and Deco (once Brazilian, now Portuguese) there would be nothing in the rules stopping Almunia from playing for England.
This being the iron-fisted Capello regime there are no guarantees that Almunia would definitely be picked for England, the Italian is just not the sort of man who does deals. Nevertheless, recent performances would have Almunia in the team ahead of David James who is nowhere near the Champions League with Portsmouth.
The English are not finished yet
In total, seven Englishmen featured in both semi-final games: John Terry, Frank Lampard, Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs, Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney. For some that will be the cause of much hand-wringing over the future of our national team but let's put it in context. Of the 24 nationalities represented among the 54 players on show (including substitutes) England had the third-highest total.
France were top with nine players, followed by Spain with eight and then the English contingent of seven. Portugal had only two although admittedly one of them, Cristiano Ronaldo, is officially the best player in the world. Germany? Just the one: Chelsea's Michael Ballack. The Netherlands also had just one, the Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, and no outfield players. Croatia? Just one and he – Arsenal's Eduardo da Silva – is really Brazilian. It will not have escaped Capello's attention that there was not a single Italian player in any of the four semi-final teams. And they are the world champions.
The Spanish conundrum
On Tuesday night, Capello watched Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez give a midfield masterclass similar to the one England were treated to in the friendly international in Seville in February. That night, he admitted that England could not match Spain's level of technique but insisted that did not mean they could not beat the European champions on one given day.
Chelsea went some way to demonstrating how that was possible. Although Iniesta and Xavi had plenty of possession they were not allowed to hurt Guus Hiddink's team in the areas that count, such as around the box. Capello will be one of the few neutrals who left the Nou Camp glad that Chelsea had shut down the most exciting attacking force in Europe. Because if Chelsea can stop Iniesta and Xavi then perhaps England can too.
Two holding midfielders
This is undoubtedly the formation du jour in European football. Liverpool's Rafael Benitez started it with Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano; Capello picked up the baton by asking Lampard and Gareth Barry to play that way for England; now Hiddink is deploying the same tactics with John Obi Mikel and Ballack. This seems to be the way things are going tactically for now and Chelsea's performance will only have served to confirm things in Capello's mind.
Besides, the diamond formation is so 2006.
When will Kieran Gibbs be ready?
The emergence of the 19-year-old at Arsenal is considered a cause for celebration for Capello: but if only he was a goalkeeper. England are well-stocked for left-backs in Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge which means that Gibbs will stay in the Under-21s for now. His form has been noted.
Michael Carrick v Cesc Fabregas
Continuing on the England v Spain theme, Carrick's excellent performance against Fabregas demonstrated that he can do it at the top level. Carrick started against Spain in February and found himself run ragged by Xavi and Iniesta. Against Fabregas this week he did better. Carrick just needs more games. His stats – aged 27, 17 England caps – against those of Fabregas – 21, 37 Spain caps – show that.
The reason Capello negotiated that England would play their World Cup qualifiers against Kazakhstan (away, 6 June) and Andorra (home, 10 June) at the end of the season was because he considered these matches to be among their easiest. His fear, well-grounded, was that his England squad will suffer a significant amount of withdrawals because of fatigue and injury to the big four clubs' best players. So far the likes of Rooney and Walcott look sharp and fit. Capello will hope they stay that way.
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