Rio Ferdinand successfully completed a two-hour training session yesterday in the midday heat and will travel with the rest of the England squad for tomorrow's vital World Cup qualification tie away to Croatia. The 29-year-old defender's troublesome neck and back injuries – which prevented him training all last week – have responded to treatment and Ferdinand, who was moving relatively easily, is expected to resume his central defensive partnership with John Terry in Zagreb.
England – although aware that Ferdinand's back spasms can flare up unexpectedly as happened on the morning of the match against Macedonia in October 2006 – will need him. Having studied a DVD of Croatia's comfortable 3-0 victory over Kazakhstan, Fabio Capello spent much of yesterday's session organising his players to defend – more than attack – set-pieces, although there were precious few clues as to how his starting XI will take shape. It did appear to be more defensively-minded, which is understandable given both the calibre of opposition and the value of a draw. "We've worked on set-plays because they could be crucial," Theo Walcott said.
David Beckham was at times a peripheral figure – David Bentley appeared more involved in delivering free-kicks and corners – while there was some one-to-one work with Walcott which would suggest that the 19-year-old, with his pace, may retain his place. However, that would be unlikely if Joe Cole is selected and given Stewart Downing's poor showing on the left it's doubtful that the Middlesbrough winger can be expected to play.
In truth, Capello is still working on his permutations, although changes will be made with Beckham making a call for "experience" on what should be a white-hot night. And although Capello will have taken the soundings of his backroom staff last night he won't have fully revealed his own thoughts to them. The Italian will leave his final deliberations until tomorrow morning before flipping over his chart to reveal his team and formation to the players just prior to setting off to the Maksimir Stadium.
There England will face a Croatian side in buoyant, confident mood. Not just because of their purposeful showing at Euro 2008 and at the start of this season, but because of the growing maturity in what is still a relatively young team in a young nation. Slaven Bilic, although deprived of the Premier League pairing of Niko Kranjcar and Eduardo – spoke of it yesterday. "Since the Euros we are playing even better," the Croatian coach said. "There is no reason to suspect that we will now fall down. Our ball is rolling forward. We expect a great game on Wednesday. Against Kazakhstan we played as we planned, the only question was if our supremacy on the field showed on the scoreline."
Bilic, who has been on West Ham's short-list to become their new manager and is also wanted by Newcastle United, said of the interest from Upton Park: "It's great that I'm linked to the club from the best league in the world. But it doesn't make my work with the national team harder. In training we always make jokes. Players tease me to take them to England as well. The interest of West Ham is proof that we are doing a great job with the national team."
Croatia beat England twice, of course, in the Euro qualifying campaign and midfielder Luka Modric acknowledged they would face a team wanting "revenge". "They will be more prepared for us than before," he said. "In the last two games we played well against England and won, so it is down to us. But we are better and stronger than last time we played England. We have more experience and we play better as a collective now."
Walcott, who gained his third cap and his first start against Andorra, argued that his relative inexperience could be a plus in such an environment. "A lot of young players play without fear," the Arsenal midfielder-cum-striker said. "There is no pressure on them and they just go out and enjoy it." There had been words of encouragement from Beckham, even though Walcott had taken his place. "He just said, 'play like you train and everything will just come naturally'," Walcott said. "I just play with no fear; this is not going to bother me at all. I will treat it [Croatia] like any other game. I will just concentrate on my performance, it is the only thing I can do. I give the England team a different aspect by getting behind defenders. There are some world-class players who can play right wing, but I give them a different option. I am always trying to go behind defenders because the pace is there. It is like Cristiano Ronaldo, he came to Manchester United in his first year, showed some brilliant tricks and now he is 23 and the best player in the world. I am not saying I will be like Ronaldo, I will be myself."