Fabio Capello put the difficulties of the past three days behind him last night, declaring as he headed into the game England must win against Slovenia here this afternoon that "I'm not crazy when I say my target is the final of the World Cup."
It was after England's 5-1 win over Croatia at Wembley nine months ago that Capello, asked if England were genuine contenders for a first World Cup win since 1966, declared: "Yes, why not? We are one of the best teams in the world who can play against all the teams out there." The events of 11 days have put that claim into perspective, though Capello insisted his goal had remained consistent. "My target, as you know, was to get to the final," he added last night.
The England manager is virtually certain of starting with Jermain Defoe alongside Wayne Rooney, in an attempt to inject more energy into the England attack, meaning Emile Heskey will pay the price for England's ineffectual attack against Algeria. Another casualty is likely to be Aaron Lennon. On the basis of the England training sessions which took place yesterday morning, James Milner is the surprise contender to play on the right, despite his disastrous performance against the United States, which saw him withdrawn after half an hour. Milner is the first choice but Joe Cole is still in contention on the England right as England seek to avoid their first World Cup straight group stage elimination since 1954.
Capello admitted that he was experiencing his most frustrating period in management at these finals and he declined to answer this newspaper's question as to whether he believed he would still be England manager by tonight. "Thank you for the question," he replied.
Capello has anxieties about the state of the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium pitch, which has been dressed with too much sand and is loose underfoot. "I just looked at it. It's not so good, but that's not an excuse. [At] Wembley we won always, so I hope so..." he said.
But he was incredulous when asked if John Terry might not start alongside Matthew Upson, following the Chelsea captain's challenge to the manager's authority, which Capello described as a "very big mistake" on Monday evening. "No. Not exist. He is one of the most important players. You can speak about the game, not John Terry," Capello said, seeking to draw a line under the Terry saga.
The manager did not seek to underplay the significance of the occasion. "It's a play-off. For me, it's a play-off, like a final in the Champions League, a semi-final in the Champions League," he said. "That's the spirit we have to play. From the first moment, we have to win." But he insisted he did not feel his current task had left him with weaker players than in his club career. "This is strong, no? I think the English players are strong, the same. When I trained Roma, I won and beat other teams. When I went to ... to Real Madrid, we went against all the best players. If you win, we are good players. Now I've got good players but we're not at the top like we played in qualification."
Capello is surprised by the fear which has gripped his players in this tournament and captain Steven Gerrard said they must cast it off tonight. "It would be an absolute disaster for this group of players to go home after the group stages," said Gerrard, for whom this tournament probably represents the last chance of World Cup glory. "We want more. We want a performance tomorrow. The key is to try and live without fear. There is pressure and fear. You're playing for England and you have massive support. It doesn't help to go on to the pitch and play with that fear."
Wayne Rooney, who is yet to score a goal during a World Cup finals, has been contacted by his club manager Sir Alex Ferguson, such was his concern about the striker's state of mind, but Capello said his training had shown signs of improvement since the goalless draw with Algeria last Saturday. "Sometimes the pressure is so big, even for important players," Capello said. "He's improved in training in the last three days."
It was Defoe whom the Slovenian manager Matjaz Kek picked put as a threat after England beat his side 2-1 at Wembley nine months ago and Capello will certainly have remembered that performance. Capello believes Slovenia will try to kill the game tonight. "It's possible they will try to time waste, so we have to press them more when they have the possession," Capello said. "We have to press them more and run more. This is what I want to see." Kek rejected that suggestion. "We want to score goals and we've shown that so far. Why change?" he said.