Fabio Capello has proved to be an uncompromising manager in his nine months in charge of the England squad but this week he has made his first concession to the players over their strict dietary regime. After complaints that many felt light-headed and even nauseous because of the rigorously-controlled diet before the Czech Republic friendly last month, they are now allowed to have greater choice over their pre-match meal.
The issue of food around the England camp has become a major factor for many of the players who have privately complained of hunger between meals because of the strict watch over what they eat. They are no longer permitted to serve themselves at buffet-style dinners, hotel mini-bar snacks are cleared out of their rooms and the baskets of energy bars that would be left around the hotel under Steve McClaren's reign are now gone.
However, they have been told that they are now allowed greater freedom of choice over their pre-match meal. Bizarrely, given Capello's nationality, some of the players have said that they would have preferred the choice of pasta as an early-evening meal which many of them are accustomed to with their clubs. That was not available to them before the Czech Republic game on 20 August because the team had eaten it for lunch that day.
However, when the squad travel to Barcelona tomorrow for Saturday's first 2010 World Cup qualifier against Andorra they have been told that there will be a greater choice for them, including the all-important pasta. Players had resorted to smuggling supplies of chocolate into the hotel and Capello's agreement to be flexible on the pre-match meal is to discourage that.
Rio Ferdinand missed training yesterday with a stiff back but is not thought to be a serious injury doubt for the Andorra and Croatia games. John Terry is back to complete fitness and Wes Brown, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard – who all trained outside of the main group yesterday – are also expected to be fit for Saturday's game.
The England manager is considering bringing Joe Cole into the team to face Andorra for a game in which, although there will be three points at stake, is effectively as much a final preparation for the match against Croatia on Wednesday. Capello believes that the 4-3-2-1 formation that he started against the Czech Republic, with Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney supporting the main striker Jermain Defoe will work – with Cole in the place of the injured Gerrard.
Otherwise it seems that the side will be unchanged, with Lampard, Gareth Barry and David Beckham in midfield. Tomorrow Capello will address for the first time in public his fears over the fitness of Michael Owen and why he left him out of the squad. He will say that the Newcastle striker's international career is by no means over, although Defoe has been given an extraordinary opportunity to supplant England's 40-goal striker in the pecking order.
Having started the last three England games for Capello, Defoe said this week that he believed a place in the team should be his if he proved that he could score England's goals. "If a forward comes in and performs why should I feel that I should have played?" Defoe said. "If someone has come in and scored and done well for the team and the team has got a result then they deserve to play. It's the same for a midfielder, a defender or a goalkeeper. Playing for your country is based on merit. If you play well you deserve to play."
With an average of one goal every 222 minutes spent on the pitch for England, history gives no guarantee that Defoe will make the breakthrough against Croatia. His five goals have come against Poland, Andorra (two) and Trinidad & Tobago (two) although only 10 of his 29 caps have been starts. He was given only two starts in the last Euro 2008 qualifying campaign by McClaren. "It [international football] is difficult," Defoe said. "We meet up – we don't play with each other all the time like you do with your clubs. We want to improve as a team and keep pushing on."