"It's a long way from the World Cup," Fabio Capello said last night but he clearly has some certainties, eight months out. The England manager gave a strong hint that he still sees David James as his first-choice goalkeeper for South Africa, despite missing England's last five games through injury, and it will clearly take a lot more indifference to Emile Heskey from the his club manager, Aston Villa's Martin O'Neill, before the striker loses out.
James had expressed doubts about whether his absence would create an opportunity tonight against Ukraine for West Ham's Robert Green, who has deputised capably in the last five games, but Capello, who said before the friendly against the Netherlands in August that he had identified who his goalkeeper would be, said nothing had changed in that respect. "I think I know who it will be," he said again. And was it the same player he had in mind before? "Yes." Earlier, Capello had said he was "happy James is here. I have to choose and will do so."
The case looks a convincing one, though the picture is scrambled with Heskey. If he lines up at kick-off again for England here, he will have started three times as many games for his country than for his current club but Capello – who paired Wayne Rooney and Carlton Cole in training – remains unmoved. "He hasn't played a lot of games [for Villa, but] we have some movement... when he plays with the national team [and] that's important for us," he said of Heskey. "I can see how important he is."
Goals are not everything, the manager feels. It is the positions the 31-year-old takes up off the ball which means he gives England something other strikers do not, and that means there is a discernible difference in perspective when it comes to the substitutes roles at club level of Michael Owen and Heskey.
While Owen has been told he needs to start games to feature, Heskey's appearance off the bench in Monday's 1-1 draw against Manchester City clearly counted for something. "He played 20 minutes," Capello said.
Capello avoided the question of whether Heskey would be ruled out of the trip to South Africa if he was still not playing many club games by then. "We can't speak about this," he said.
Owen can certainly afford a rueful smile at the news that all 55 of the players who have featured in Capello's squads in the World Cup qualifiers have been invited by text to attend the final group game against Belarus at Wembley on Wednesday, which could see Michael Mancienne, Joe Lewis and Jimmy Bullard there.
"All of them are on my mind. I will not forget any of my players," Capello said of that event. Talking of tonight's game, for which England's qualification has not persuaded him to weaken his side, he added: "I want to see how they play. It's a really good test to understand what happens when we have to play and it's not really important to win. I'm putting them under pressure."
But, with his mind still very much fixed on next summer, Capello acknowledged that the challenge is one England know well – of how to maintain the momentum eight months out from a World Cup finals when spring comes around. "We have to prepare something different [to make sure we don't lose momentum]." he said.
"The month of May will be really interesting for us, depending on which clubs play in finals; which players play in the final of the Champions League."
He didn't go as far as to accept that a Real Madrid v Barcelona final would be helpful: "I'm happy if an English team play the final in Madrid. We are preparing everything with this period in mind."
But the intensity of Wayne Rooney's training session last night – he carried out the bag of balls, withstood a strong tackle from Rio Ferdinand under Capello's nose and was still protesting with the manager about the challenge 10 minutes later – was a reminder that the odds of his lasting until next summer without injury might be long. It's still some way from the World Cup – and doesn't Capello know it.