Jermain Defoe is the victim but it is Fabio Capello who is suffering from a condition that strikes a lot of top managers. That condition is an obsession with Emile Heskey and, once in the grip of it, these managers find it very hard to shake.
Like Sven Goran Eriksson and Gérard Houllier, England's big non-goalscoring centre-forward has taken a hold of Fabio Capello's imagination which is showing no sign of relenting. Something is telling Capello to stick with Heskey despite all the signs that the Aston Villa striker is going back to the bad old Heskey ways after his international renaissance last season.
Defoe's goal against Slovenia on Saturday was his eighth in nine appearances for England, one more than Heskey has scored in his entire 55-cap, 10-year international career. Capello made it clear on Saturday night that he does not believe that Defoe is by any means a definite to start ahead of Heskey against Croatia on Wednesday. "He [Defoe] is a really important player," was all that the England manager would say. "I can choose different players."
Let's be straight about Heskey: he has made a huge contribution to the Capello regime, not least on that great night in Zagreb one year ago when a 4-1 victory over Croatia told us that the World Cup qualifying campaign was under way. But his career has always gone in cycles, and it would now seem that, out of the Aston Villa team, he is once again lodged in a downturn with little sign of recovery.
The Capello system of using Heskey as a target man to punch the holes for Rooney to run into works fine – just as long as Rooney is scoring goals. When, as was the case on Saturday, Rooney is off-colour then England do not look like scoring unless it is from a set-piece or, as was the case against Slovenia, a penalty. Because by playing one striker who never scores Capello is halving England's goal threat at a stroke.
The notion that Heskey is a brilliant foil for the likes of Rooney and Michael Owen, a player who encourages them to score goals, is a really nice idea. It just happens to be wrong. The most efficient partnership of England strikers is Defoe and Peter Crouch who average a goal every 27.9 minutes on the pitch when they play together. That is followed by Rooney and Crouch (a goal every 42.4 minutes). Rooney and Heskey average a goal every 48 minutes.
However, seven wins out of seven World Cup qualifiers means that Capello deserves the trust of England fans. By midnight on Wednesday, his team might well be going to the World Cup finals. He has transformed this team by making simple, smart decisions but even so, Saturday's disjointed performance did make you wonder exactly what the next bold move is.
Almost as unpredictable as Heskey's form is Capello's erratic command of English. On Saturday, his head still buzzing from the game, he protested that he thought, "Heskey played a good first half." Capello is clearly baffled at the scepticism towards Heskey who is after all, a pleasant, stoical type of chap. But then Capello has not been around to witness the years of frustration at the man who should be England's Didier Drogba.
Would he always pair Rooney with Heskey? "It depends on the players, it depends on the moment," Capello said. "The players do a lot of movement around Heskey. The movement of Rooney and [Steven] Gerrard is very dangerous every time." Had Defoe earned the right with his goal to start the next game? "Perhaps he would be tired if he played from the first minute," Capello said, tongue in cheek.
Defoe is not the only striker who is overlooked. Peter Crouch's track record as an international goalscorer – 16 goals in 34 caps – only seems to mean that he is now fifth choice behind Carlton Cole. The strange thing about Cole is that he is a proto-Heskey, a perfectly decent Premier League-standard striker with a physical presence who does not score enough goals. If Cole and Heskey both go to South Africa then England's goals will have to come from just Rooney and Defoe.
For what it was worth, the very pleasant coach of Slovenia, Matjaz Kek, said that on the basis of Defoe's goal: "Capello should think seriously before the Croatia game about picking him. [Aaron] Lennon and Defoe worked well together." But then Capello is no more likely to take Kek's advice than he is to be able to spell his name correctly.
More pertinently, Kek did politely point out that he had "watched videos of England playing and we saw space behind [Glen] Johnson". Much of Slovenia's early attacking came down England's right side and a more clinical side would surely have scored. The Liverpool full-back is a superb athlete and a great attacker but it was he who was beaten by winger Nejc Pecnik who crossed for Zlatan Ljubijankic to score Slovenia's goal.
"I'm happy with Johnson," Capello said. "Don't worry. He's one of the best right-backs in the world." Despite what the doubters say he could well be right. But Johnson will not be able to afford a game like Saturday in the latter stages of a World Cup.
Rooney's penalty award? Not a penalty and not a dive, rather a foul on Bostjan Cesar but this one will run and run. Lampard tucked away the penalty yet England never really found their rhythm. Defoe's goal was an exchange with Lennon and then a disguised shot between two defenders into the bottom corner. He has become England's supersub, and you expect Capello wants to keep it that way.
England (4-2-3-1): Green (West Ham); Johnson (Liverpool), Terry (Chelsea), Upson (West Ham), A Cole (Chelsea); Lampard (Chelsea), Barry (Manchester City); Wright-Phillips (Manchester City), Rooney (Manchester United), Gerrard (Liverpool); Heskey (Aston Villa). Substitutes used: Defoe (Tottenham) for Heskey (h-t); Milner (Aston Villa) for Gerrard (h-t); Carrick (Manchester United) for Lampard (h-t); Lennon (Tottenham) for Wright-Phillips (h-t); Lescott (Manchester City) for Upson (65); C Cole (West Ham) for Rooney (81).
Slovenia (4-4-2): S Handanovic (Udinese); Brecko (Cologne), Suler (Ghent), Cesar (Grenoble), Jokic (Sochaux); Birsa (Auxerre), Radosavljevic (Tomsk), Koren (West Bromwich Albion), Kirm (Wisla Krakow); Dedic (Bochum), Novakovic (Cologne). Substitutes used: Mavricrozic (Koblenz) for Cesar (34); Ljubijankic (Ghent) for Novakovic (55); Komac (Maccabi Tel Aviv) for Birsa (65); Pecnik (Nacional) for Dedic 71; Krhin (Internazionale) for Radosavljevic (77); Stevanovic (Vitesse Arnhem) for Kirm (77).
Referee: J Eriksson (Sweden).
Booked: Slovenia Kirm, Cesar, Brecko.
Man of the match: A Cole.
Strike rate: Forwards' records under Capello
*Jermain Defoe 8 goals, 420 mins. One goal every 52.5mins
*Wayne Rooney 10 goals, 1,085 mins. One every 108.5 mins
* Peter Crouch 2 goals, 408 mins. One every 204 mins
* Emile Heskey 2 goals, 571 mins. One every 285.5 minsReuse content