Fabio Capello gave every impression on Sunday night that, like his two most recent predecessors as England manager, he is convinced that he is the man who will finally solve the question of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard's incompatibility and mould them at last into an effective central midfield pairing.
On the brink of a World Cup finals with a carefully calibrated formation having won nine out of 10 qualifiers, it did feel like we were stepping back in time. To Euro 2004 perhaps, or the last World Cup four years ago. Or even the doomed qualification campaign for Euro 2008. History tells us that playing these two in central midfield together does not work but, like all the others, Capello wants a go.
The consequences of Gareth Barry's fitness test this morning before Capello names his final 23-man squad for the flight to South Africa tomorrow go far beyond Barry's chance to play in his first World Cup. They go right to the heart of whether Capello will attempt to solve the oldest, most enduring mysteries of England's golden generation. If Barry does not make the cut he is resolved to play Gerrard and Lampard in the centre.
Even if Barry makes it, and Capello wants an assurance that he will be fit enough to train by the end of the week, then it seems inevitable that Gerrard and Lampard will line up as the pair in a 4-2-3-1 formation against the United States in the first group C match on 12 June. Capello has tried all the other contenders – Michael Carrick, Tom Huddlestone and Scott Parker – and sees no other alternative.
After the win over Japan in Austria, in which Gerrard played the second half alongside Lampard in central midfield, Capello dismissed the fears that long-term observers of the England team have about those two players' compatibility. He knew something of their past but, with the buoyant mood of a manager who had just forced the Football Association into grovelling to him, he was not too bothered about it.
He offered up the age-old justification for playing the pair of them together: that good players can play in any position. "Frank and Steve are used to going forward always because they have one holding player [alongside them for their clubs]," Capello said. "If they will play together one will have to stay in different moments as a holding player.
"If Steve goes forward then Lampard stays and [in] different moments Steve has to stay. The most important thing I saw in the second half was when these players get the ball they played it really quickly. The passes were really good through the defence."
That old line about when one stays, the other goes. If only it was that simple. In the past these two titans of English football have either both assumed the license to roam free or, as it was occasionally under Steve McClaren, were both so inhibited by the infamy of their partnership that neither felt confident enough to break up field.
"I know, I know, I know the history," Capello said on Wednesday when he was reminded of the problems this partnership has created in the past. "Probably both were too young [when they were last played together]. That's a joke. This is always a big question for you [English press]? They can't play together? I hope that they can play together. I have to decide." The Lampard-Gerrard axis became a byword for incompatibility; an anomalous example of how a midfield partnership could be less than the sum of its parts. The two players themselves never knew why it did not work in the past. All they knew was that the England managers they played under wanted it to work – until Capello came along.
It is a curious fact that the England manager has never paired them in the centre of midfield, even though they played together in eight of the 10 World Cup qualifiers together. He played Gerrard in central midfield in his first ever game in charge, against Switzerland in February 2008, but Lampard was not available that day and Gerrard's central midfield partner for that game was, improbable as it now sounds, Jermaine Jenas.
The first time under Capello that Lampard and Gerrard were both selected in the same England team was not until his third game in charge against the United States at Wembley in May 2008. By then he was already formulating his plans to move Gerrard out to the left. When England played the Czech Republic in August that year, their last friendly before the qualifiers began, it was on the left side that Gerrard started.
Since then Capello has preferred the Liverpool captain, and one of the great midfielders of his age, to stay in that left-wing role and wander in. In the absence of Barry – and Gerrard back in the holding role – one suspects that it could well be Joe Cole who occupies the left-sided position against the United States in 12 days' time.
It is quite some departure so close to a tournament to whistle up the ghosts of England teams past but Capello is a confident coach – more confident than Sven Goran Eriksson and McClaren – and he believes that he can make it work. He also seems to think that, if Barry recovers, then the Gerrard-Lampard axis will be for one game only although that is rather a big assumption to make.
In a different world, maybe with different managers, the Gerrard-Lampard axis could have been the basis for one of the greatest England teams ever. They are two marvellous players who have achieved great things for their club sides and had they been able to complement one another then life could have been so much different for England over the past two tournaments.
That was the holy grail for Eriksson and McClaren, that once the code was cracked then the team itself would be set free. Capello, ever the pragmatist, appeared to decide early on that it was a problem that would never be solved and split them up, like a teacher separating two naughty boys in class. But Gerrard and Lampard are back together now and, as we have said many times before, this time it has to work.
The odd couple
22 Games Gerrard and Lampard have started in central midfield for England (winning 14, losing 5, drawing 3)
3 years since the pair have both started in central midfield, in the 1-0 victory against Austria in November 2007.
0 starts together in central midfield under Fabio Capello in 16 squads the two have both been selected for.