Since England won their last game against Ukraine more than eight weeks ago, Fabio Capello has taken a back seat for the climax to the club season. Clearly, however, his football philosophy has not changed in that period of reflection. What was he expecting from his first visit to Kazakhstan, he was asked at Football Association headquarters on Friday? "To win." Then, invited to make something of the difficulties England's weary squad will face on their journey to the far east of Uefa's dominion, he insisted: "No excuses."
That has been very much the way of it since Capello's uncompromising regime replaced the softer approach encouraged by Sven Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren. After a mixed start, the wind of change is blowing England toward South Africa, carrying popular and critical support along with it. Now, as the manager says, the six points expected from return games against Kazakhstan next Saturday and at home to Andorra four days later would be "a very big step" towards the finals.
If "no excuses" is how it should be, anyone looking for one or three need search no further than a match in 30-degree heat at the end of a typically draining English season. As Capello said: "When you arrive at the end of the season you are not fresh. It is a long season, here more than other countries because we have one competition more. In the last three or four years the most important teams, the big four, have been in the semi-final of the Champions' League. I know that not only physically but also mentally you have to be very strong for this period and you spend a lot of energy."
Half of the outfield players selected were still involved in club football in this final week of May, including the red-eyed Manchester United contingent whose idea of hell must be a seven-hour flight to Almaty on Wednesday. Their reaction to such a dismal defeat by Barcelona – Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand all having played so poorly – needs to match the character shown this time last year by John Terry, who picked himself up (literally) from his slip-sliding penalty miss in the Champions' League final to play a crucial, goalscoring role in a comparatively meaningless England friendly against the United States a week later.
"Terry is one fighter!" Capello said. "I hope for the same reaction from the other players." Especially Rooney, left, of whom he added: "He lost easy passes in Rome, incredible. He was nervous. But it's not a problem for me because he's a very, very good player and he will play very well."
Rooney can expect to be used alongside Steven Gerrard behind a main striker, who will be either Emile Heskey or Peter Crouch, depending on whether Capello goes for the man in form (Crouch) or the one who has done particularly well in his most recent internationals (Heskey). Carrick cannot be certain of playing at all, since Gareth Barry started the last two games, albeit without producing his club form. Capello wanted another United man, Wes Brown, in the squad but was told in Rome that he was not fully fit yet and therefore picked United's Gary Neville as deputy to Glen Johnson, remarking bluntly: "We haven't got in England right-backs."
Going so far back (Neville's last cap was 27 months ago) represents a huge vote of no-confidence in Manchester City's Micah Richards, who was a regular in that position for much of McClaren's time but has been confined to the Under-21s since. That is where he will be for the European Championships in Sweden beginning in a fortnight's time. So will Theo Walcott, although he is with the seniors as well this week and should start on Saturday ahead of David Beckham and Shaun Wright-Phillips.
Arsenal's manager Arsène Wenger is unhappy that his young prodigy will be so busy this summer, but Capello argues that because of injury, Walcott had a winter break: "His holiday was in the winter. At the start he played with fear because of his shoulder and was not the same player. At the end of the season he played better and I'm very happy because he is a young player and one of the most important players in my squad."
In goal, West Ham's Robert Green deserves another chance, Scott Carson is lucky to get one after a poor season at West Bromwich Albion and Paul Robinson appears to have recovered his confidence.
But the 60-year-old goalkeeping coach Ray Clemence could probably play, even if England made surprisingly difficult work of the previous meetings with Kazakhstan and Andorra, both of whom reached half-time goalless before submitting 5-1 and 2-0 respectively as they tired. The key on each occasion was typical of Capello: changes at the interval, with Stewart Downing and Jermain Defoe hauled off against the Andorrans and Barry at Wembley. No messing; it is another aspect of his management that will not change and England are the better for it.
England are in Kazakhstan on Saturday (4pm kick-off) and at home to Andorra on Wednesday 10 June (8.15pm kick-off)
Goalkeepers: Scott Carson (West Bromwich Albion), Robert Green (West Ham United), Paul Robinson (Blackburn Rovers). Defence: Wayne Bridge (Manchester City), Ashley Cole, John Terry (both Chelsea), Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville (both Manchester United) Glen Johnson (Portsmouth), Joleon Lescott (Everton), Matthew Upson (West Ham).
Midfield: Gareth Barry (Aston Villa), David Beckham (LA Galaxy), Michael Carrick (Manchester United), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Theo Walcott (Arsenal), Shaun Wright-Phillips (Manchester City), Ashley Young (Aston Villa).
Strikers: Carlton Cole (West Ham), Peter Crouch (Portsmouth), Jermain Defoe (Tottenham Hotspur), Emile Heskey (Aston Villa), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)Reuse content