It is a rare England performance that brooks no serious quibbles, but Friday night's 3-0 victory in Sofia was a contender for that unusual category. The only arguments for marking the team down were that their opponents were so poor and that, in those circumstances and with the benefit of a three-goal lead by half-time, the final margin should have exceeded the 4-0 romp over Bulgaria a year ago and gone down as the most emphatic away win under Fabio Capello.
If Group G still comes down to goal difference, however, England's current nine-goal advantage over Montenegro is hardly likely to be overturned in each side's remaining two matches, one of which is their meeting in Podgorica next month. It will still be important nevertheless for England not to lose there, since Uefa rules, confusingly opposed to Fifa's, have head-to-head results as the first determining factor when teams finish level on points. Montenegro, having drawn at Wembley, would therefore be ahead of England if they were to be beat them as well as winning their final game against Switzerland. Capello did not seem aware of that, suggesting "100 per cent" that England would be through as group winners if they defeat Wales at on Tuesday, which is not the case.
On the back of their own welcome success, the Welsh will arrive full of themselves, albeit without the talismanic Craig Bellamy. Desperate to improve their poor international ranking as well as cock a snook at the English, they have caused problems before at Wembley, where they have not been heavily beaten since the annus mirabilis of 1966. But there have been far better Welsh sides in the intervening period than the current one and it would be a surprise if they were to deprive England of any points.
Capello could happily employ an unchanged side, the 4-2-3-1 formation having again proved England's most effective. Rooney, although the furthest man forward this time, where he can sometimes become frustrated in isolation, now looks the mature performer who can adapt happily to either role, which leaves open the possibilities in future of a return as the spearhead for either Darren Bent, Jermain Defoe or Andy Carroll.
It is not long since Carroll was considered the long-term favourite for that position. Yet Capello, as he reiterated both before and after Friday's game, will be picking the team for however many England games remain before his retirement strictly on current form; of which the Liverpool man has little at present. What the manager has made clear is that the days of Sven Goran Eriksson, when it often seemed harder to get out of the England team than into it, are gone. That could be his greatest legacy.
With Rio Ferdinand left out despite being substitute for Manchester United last weekend, Gary Cahill came in and fully justified his place. At right-back Chris Smalling continued to adjust to his new position, caught out perhaps twice but achieving as many notable clearances too. "Smalling missed two balls but it's different to play here," Capello said. "When you play with your [club] team you know everything, the movement of the defenders, of the midfielders, of the forwards. Here it's not the same and the value of the opponents is always high because they're the best players of their country."
Smalling has suggested that he envisages a future for club and country in the centre of defence. "I see it as a temporary thing," he said, which it is likely to prove if and when Liverpool's Glen Johnson regains full fitness. "At the minute I'm needed to do a job at right-back but the aim is to go on and challenge Rio." His new United club-mate Phil Jones, a successful partner in England's Under-21 team, has similar ambitions, though Capello – "Jones is [for] the future" – sensibly declined to throw both of them in together on Friday.
The decision to leave out Frank Lampard smacked of equally firm leadership. Gareth Barry, on the other hand, has flourished in Manchester City's first few games and a partnership with Scott Parker turned out to be the right one for an away tie expected to prove more problematic than it did. Parker, unfortunate not to have gone to the World Cup, was given another chance despite having played only Championship football this season before his move to Tottenham and took it, the only concern being his tendency to collect bookings from continental referees even less forgiving of his tackling than their English colleagues.
Fourth best team in the world, as Fifa's rankings proclaim, or not, England are nevetheless the best team in this group and should now go on to confirm it by standing on top come the final reckoning in early October.
Fab's future options: (4-2-3-1)
1. As you were
Stick with Friday's team, which is likely on Tuesday, if Parker and Barry are considered a sufficiently positive combination for a home game.
2. Go with experience
Once Glen Johnson, Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand are fit, it will be tempting to bring them all back, with Rooney in behind Bent or Defoe.
3. The young ones
Continue the transformation to a more youthful side, leaving John Terry and Scott Parker as the only 30-somethings.Reuse content