Fabio right back at start as Johnson plays joker

  • @stevetongue

Never let it be said that England's manager Fabio Capello is boosting his average by seeking inferior opposition for friendly matches. Away games with France, Spain, Germany and Holland refute that, as well as illustrating that for major nations, serious opposition is often not to be found these days in qualifying groups.

So taking on a real challenge, as opposed to shooting practice against an Andorra or a Kazakhstan, is a necessary part of a team's development. In fact – while this would not have been the intention – winning only one of those four friendly matches has actually had the desirable effect of damping down expectation ahead of what we can reasonably assume is next summer's real test. How, after all, can England or their followers be talking, or even thinking, in terms of winning the World Cup when performing as abjectly and conceding such ludicrous goals as in the first half in Amsterdam?

Capello was surprisingly unconcerned by those lapses, in public at least, sounding if anything less vexed than even Sven Goran Eriksson had been after losing an August friendly 4-1 to Denmark at the start of the last World Cup season four years ago. Capello came out with the line that he would rather the team made such mistakes in what he called pre-season; the problem with that, of course, being that there is no guarantee they will not occur when it really matters. If there are to be extenuating circumstances, perhaps the manager will indeed extend a degree of leniency to Rio Ferdinand, Gareth Barry and Glen Johnson – all pencilled in on most people's squad lists for next summer – for their lapses, as well as those like Ashley Young and Shaun Wright-Phillips, who were unable to make more of the opportunity offered to add substance to their claims.

Given that Ferdinand has in the past demonstrated the capability of recovering from such aberrations, the most alarming of those individual performances that fell so far below par was that of Johnson. At Liverpool's training ground the next day, Rafa Benitez was able to make a joke of it, claiming that his new £17m(!) right-back was up against such a world-class talent as club-mate Ryan Babel. This drew the intended laugh, and later Benitez was honest enough to confess that Johnson still needed to improve defensively, which he hoped would be achieved "between us and Capello". The worry for England is that right-back has become the only position in which there is currently no serious competition for places. Indeed, while Capello (below) likes in a squad of 23 to name three goalkeepers and then two players for each outfield position, he could not find anybody to understudy Johnson for the Amsterdam game, and chose an extra midfielder. Wes Brown, although not without his faults, was the Italian's first choice when he took the job, but like all Manchester United's right-backs he has struggled with injury. While Sir Alex Ferguson has neither the necessity nor the desire to help England, it would be of considerable benefit if Brown, Gary Neville or even the long-suffering Owen Hargreaves could command the position at Old Trafford. Luke Young, never convincing at international level, suffered from playing on the left for Aston Villa; Micah Richards is falling between two stools of full-back and centre-half and the Under-21 incumbent, Coventry's Martin Cranie, is nowhere near ready.

If Barry is not to fulfil the early potential he showed with England, there is at least an adequate, more creative option in Michael Carrick. Similarly, should neither Young nor Wright-Phillips (who has had rather more chances) have the season they need, there is no position with more alternatives than wide midfield. Young's club colleague James Milner added to them with his cameo on Wednesday, and may yet avoid becoming one of those players who appear for years at Under-21 level without being able to make the step upward.

Jermain Defoe and Carlton Cole both benefited from his unfussy service from the wing and the success of that trio also emphasised a valuable quality of Capello's, not shared with many of his England predecessors – the ability to make telling substitutions.