It is hard to believe how different it was for Fabio Capello one year ago as his England team embarked on a season of seven World Cup qualifiers. Only a late goal from Joe Cole earned him a draw at home to the Czech Republic. Harry Redknapp excoriated him on Setanta. His team were booed off the pitch. The national mood was behind the British Olympic team not the overpaid, wastrel English footballers.
One year on and poor old Setanta is no more. Joe Cole is long-term injured. Redknapp has a new job. No one can quite remember who won what medal at the Olympics and Capello is a genius. At the very least he is the man who can lead England to the World Cup finals next year with a fighting chance of going far in the competition.
Tomorrow will be a year to the day since England won their first qualifier against Andorra in Barcelona, a stuttering performance that gave no clues as to the virtuoso 4-1 victory that awaited in Zagreb four days later and the moment when the Capello regime caught fire. Now with seven wins out of seven in World Cup qualification England can clinch their place in South Africa with victory over Croatia at Wembley on Wednesday night.
Today, England play Slovenia which lies just 30 miles east of Capello's childhood home of Pieris in north-eastern Italy. Slovenia are ranked 54th in the world by Fifa, 45 places behind Croatia. The truth is that Capello could pick who he likes this evening. Wembley expects revenge against Croatia on Wednesday for the cataclysmic Euro 2008 defeats and by Thursday morning we should all be booking our flights to South Africa.
It cannot go wrong now. Can it?
Capello is entitled to experiment today, most likely with Jermain Defoe in attack alongside Wayne Rooney instead of the more familiar Rooney-Emile Heskey axis. The Heskey question will become more pressing if his form tails off this season. There needs to be an alternative, however attached Capello has become to the original template.
Yesterday, Capello emphasised his conviction that the talent runs deep in this England squad. It is a point he has made since he took over in January 2008, only for the first nine months no-one really believed him. He proudly ran through his roll-call of right-sided players yesterday: Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright-Phillips, James Milner and the man he refers to just as "David".
The conversation inevitably turned to the poaching of young foreign players by English clubs. Did that mean the next generation of young English players were not up to it? Capello screwed up his eyes and tried to remember some of the under-21s he had promoted to the senior squad. "Ashley Young and James Milner have come through, they were in the under-21s, [Gabriel] Agbonlahor as well, [David] Wheater," he said proudly.
As for young players coming into this team there may well be chances for Young, Milner, and Lennon today, especially as Capello announced that he will be making six substitutions at half-time. Ben Foster was given yesterday off to attend the birth of his baby son and was back in the team hotel last night. He looks favourite to start ahead of Robert Green, despite the latter having started the last three games.
Typically pragmatic towards the question of whether young players can thrive in Premier League club's academies which are stocked full of the likes of Gaël Kakuta and other aspiring foreign stars, Capello said the best would always emerge. "I'm thinking about Roma and Serie A again, I put [Daniele] De Rossi in when he was only 18 because I saw him during the training and he was good. If they are good enough then they will play."
As for the recent diving phenomenon, he dismissed it. "In my team, sometimes, yes, players dived. Yes, of course I minded. I don't like divers and I told players that. That's my opinion, but I'm not on the pitch and it is the players who decide whether they dive – I can't decide for the players."
The England cricket team, fresh from victory in the Ashes, will be at Wembley today as guests of John Terry and his team-mates. They will not want to embarrass themselves by making the same mistakes that they did against the Netherlands last month. Should England not be defending in a more Italian fashion? "No, not Italian, Spanish, Brazilian or Chinese. You just have to defend well," Capello said.
For all his bluntness, Capello has never patronised the English in the last 21 months; never made us feel inferior in the face of his Italian football heritage. That and his brilliant results is why, whatever happens today, Wembley will not be booing him off, and the pundits will probably go easy.Reuse content