Fabio Capello had already proved himself a good manager; last night delivered evidence he is a lucky one too as England received one of the easiest World Cup first round groups they could have hoped for ahead of the tournament in South Africa next summer.
The United States, Algeria and Slovenia stand between Capello's team and a place in the first knock-out round where they will potentially face one from Germany, Australia, Ghana and Serbia in Group D – one of the two most difficult groups in the first round. Even Capello, who made the usual warnings against complacency, could not help admitting of the draw: "It's not bad."
England have played Slovenia and the United States in friendlies at Wembley within the last 21 months, beating both comfortably. No England team has played Algeria, who squeaked through after a play-off with Egypt. Last night the first shot was fired in the build-up by former Slovenia star Zlatko Zahovic who walked out of the squad at the 2002 World Cup finals. "England are a team full of stars and egos," he said. "They cannot possibly spend a month-and-a-half together without friction."
For preparation in facing Algeria, Capello said the Football Association will invite Egypt to Wembley for the March friendly. "The teams [in England's Group C] play different styles," he said. "I remember the USA is stronger physically and technically are good enough, Slovenia's style is like Yugoslavian players so technically they are good, lot of passes and more imagination. The Algerians, I don't know. I have to study."
England will not have to move from their base in Phokeng for the first game against the United States that will be played in Rustenburg at altitude. After that they play Algeria at the spectacular Green Point stadium in Cape Town; then Slovenia in Port Elizabeth. "Those [second and third] games will be more humid and more windy and different conditions, but that is no excuse," Capello said. "You have to play against all the teams and you have to win to go forward. You have to respect all of the teams."
The most eye-catching group in the first round brings together Brazil, Portugal, Ivory Coast and rank outsiders North Korea – the top three teams are all ranked by Fifa within the top 16. To put England's group in context, their highest-ranked challengers are the US (14), arguably the best team in the second pot. But England beat Croatia (10) and Ukraine (24) to qualify for the finals, both ranked considerably higher than Algeria (28) and Slovenia (33).
Slovenia defeated Guus Hiddink's Russia in the European play-offs but they were easily beaten 2-1 by England at Wembley in September. "Other groups are stronger than ours but I remember when I was a player in Germany – every game is not easy," said Capello, who was born in the Italian town of Pieris, about 10 miles from the border with Slovenia. "Sometimes you think the group is easy but for some teams it will be not so.
"It's not bad. We have played against US and Slovenia recently at home, and played well and won but when we have to play in South Africa in June it will be different."
The meeting with the US will naturally evoke memories of England's shock 1-0 defeat to that country in their first appearance at the World Cup finals in 1950, when Joe Gaetjens' goal beat a team that included Billy Wright and Tom Finney. More recently, the 2-0 victory over the US in May last year was memorable for two dreadful challenges by Wayne Rooney on Ricardo Clark and Frankie Hejduk.
The US coach Bill Bradley, whose team ended Spain's unbeaten run at the Confederations Cup in the summer, said his team had not forgotten Rooney's challenge. "We have great respect for the way he competes," he said. "We learned a lot from that match and it will help us prepare. I hope we can [win as in 1950] again. It is a game that is still talked about in the US. But the real meaning of this game is for the current group of players."
Slovenia's coach Matjaz Kek did not exactly build up the threat that his side posed to England, instead suggesting Capello's team might win the tournament. "Maybe the time has come for England," he said. "They have a fabulous coach, they have very good players and maybe it is time for England."
England's odds have been cut from 6-1 to 11-2 following the draw, although they continue to trail favourites Spain and Brazil. If both those sides win their respective groups, and should England do the same, Capello's team would avoid Brazil until the semi-finals and Spain until the final.
The draw in Cape Town almost went exactly to the anodyne plan laid out for it. Veering dangerously off script, Fifa president Sepp Blatter embarrassed himself when he fixed the female South African presenter in his gaze and declared how easy it was to "fall in love" with her country when he looked at her.
The Hollywood actress Charlize Theron, presented as the South Africa celebrity, albeit with a heavy American accent, struggled in her repartee with Fifa general secretary Jerome Valcke, whose attempts at flirtation involved bombarding her with World Cup statistics. In the middle was a video-address from a frail Nelson Mandela, who said the World Cup was one of the rewards for his nation's "struggle for freedom".
England's opponents in Group C
FIFA ranking: 14
Best World Cup performance: Semi-finals, 1930
Are they a threat? Bob Bradley's team appeared in a number of pre-tournament 'group of death' scenarios and Fabio Capello will view them as the opposition to fear most. England strolled to a 2-0 win over the US just last May but their most memorable meeting came in the 1950 tournament, when a Joe Gaetjens header condemned England to a 1-0 defeat and group stage exit from their debut in the competition.
Strengths: Reached tournament with traditionally dull efficiency under the guidance of Bradley. Boast a wealth of players in English leagues so not too much research will be needed.
Weaknesses: Habitually find goals hard to come by, despite Confederations Cup run. Defence, marshalled by former Fulham defender Carlos Bocanegra, needs to be on game.
Key player: Tim Howard. The 30-year-old Everton and former Manchester United goalkeeper has greatly impressed at Goodison Park.
FIFA ranking: 28
Best World Cup performance: Group stages, 1982, 1986
Are they a threat? Qualified at expense of rivals Egypt in a bitterly tense play-off to make the World Cup for a third time and first since 1986. Coach Rabah Saadane is in fourth stint as manager and leads them to South Africa on the back of impressive qualifying form, with only one defeat in their last 10. Unlikely to cause many problems, but have been known to cause an upset at the World Cup.
Strengths: Nothing to overly worry about. Nadir Belhadj, Hassan Yebda, Hameur Bouazza and Kamel Ghilas play in England, with out-of-favour Madjid Bougherra at Rangers. The African Nations Cup can expect a rise in viewing figures.
Weaknesses: Weakest of the African qualifiers, Capello will be confident of progress.
Key player: Yazid Mansouri. The Lorient midfielder is the captain and hearbeat of the Desert Foxes. Yet to score for his country in 58 appearances.
FIFA ranking: 33
Best World Cup performance: Group stages, 2002
Are they a threat? Having qualified from a group featuring the Czech Republic, the nation of just two million surprised dark horses Russia in the play-offs to reach a second World Cup. Impressed with their belligerence in a friendly defeat against England in September and won't be the easy pickings many hope.
Strengths: A lack of household names should not take away from the collective spirit and strength within Matjez Kek's team and he has a number of talented individuals to call upon. Cologne striker Milivoje Novakovic top-scored during qualifying with five goals.
Weaknesses: As with Algeria, the lack of World Cup experience will probably see a predictably early exit.
Key player: Robert Koren. Attacking midfielder has become a mainstay in West Bromwich Albion's promotion charge.
The group-stage venues
England's opening match against the US will be held at the 45,000 capacity Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, a town with a population of under 400,000 and situated 1,500m above sea level. They then travel 861 miles to the 70,000-seat Green Point stadium in Cape Town to face Algeria in the second most populous city in South Africa. England's final game, against Slovenia, takes place at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth.Reuse content