Johnson ready to be put on the spot as Capello explores his options
Among the England players practising taking penalties at their training base in Irdning this weekend was the 22-year-old Adam Johnson, who, by all accounts, dispatched his without any nerve at all in front of a crowd of a dozen curious locals in the adjoining children's playground.
The setting does not compare to the intense pressure that Johnson is likely to feel if, should he make Fabio Capello's final 23-man World Cup squad, he is called upon to take a spot-kick in the feverish atmosphere of Soccer City in Johannesburg or the Green Point Stadium in Cape Town. But you have to start somewhere and Johnson is one of those players who has impressed Capello so much that he will surely figure tonight in the friendly against Mexico at Wembley .
The player Johnson is most commonly compared to is Chris Waddle, a fellow son of the north-east whose miss from the penalty spot in 1990 signalled the end of England's involvement in that World Cup. Johnson has never before played for England but ever since his move to Manchester City from Middlesbrough in January he has felt like Capello's potential wildcard.
Capello said last week that he expected to see something from Johnson during the build-up that would convince him the player had to go to South Africa. "He is one player who is really good and he has played really well in important games, not easy games, for Manchester City," Capello said. "He has improved a lot, he is a really, really good player. I selected him because I think he can stay with us.
"He is young and the World Cup is different. There is the pressure; the level of the games at the World Cup is really high. I don't know if he will be with us, but he can play and his future is with the national team."
Tonight's team against Mexico will be the first glimpse into what Capello has in mind for his side come 12 June against the United States. There will be no Gareth Barry, who will be examined by a specialist tomorrow, or John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Joe Cole or David James but that will allow us to see who among the next level have caught Capello's eye.
Joe Hart and Robert Green will each get 45 minutes in the absence of James. James Milner will potentially play in Barry's role and the possibility of Ledley King at centre-back and Jamie Carragher at right-back will make this team look very different to any Capello has picked previously. He has also never had Johnson or Aaron Lennon – the two contenders for the left side – in an England team of before.
Whether Wayne Rooney is partnered by Emile Heskey or Steven Gerrard, Capello said last week that his intention was to see how his players operate in a different kind of formation. "My plan is to play two styles," he said. "You can play the forwards in different positions, but it depends on the game, the injuries to players, the opponents, it depends on a lot of things. We have a lot of options.
"Also during the game we might change the style. I remember in one game I changed the style four or five times and changed the position of the players. You have to read what is happening and choose the best positions. I want flexibility.
"My style was always 4-4-2 or 4-3-1-2 with Steven Gerrard free behind the two forwards and with Roma I played three centre-backs. We have to practise [that system in Austria] because in any moment it is possible that you might have to use this during one game. If you have to play 10 players against 11, for example. You have to prepare for these things."
After Italy, Capello's squad has the highest average age of any at the World Cup this summer but he was dismissive of any suggestion that this could be a factor in their performance. "I'm not concerned about the age because the World Cup is not long, it's only seven games," he said.
After tonight, England will return to Austria where they play their final warm-up game against Japan in Graz on Sunday. Then they return home and Capello will probably break the bad news to the seven who are not part of the final 23-man squad with a phone call a week tomorrow. "That decision," he said last week, "will be the hardest."
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