When Fabio Capello is asked about the kind of teams he admires in international football he tends to frown, fold his arms and talk evasively about how every country does it differently in terms of technique and mentality. In the end though he gets round to the current Spain team and even in the eyes of iron-hearted Il Capo you sense a genuine respect for the way in which the champions of Europe play the game.
Which is why tonight's game at the Roman Sanchez Pizjuan stadium will prove such as intriguing test for the Capello England project. His team have beaten Croatia in Zagreb, they have seen off Germany in Berlin but what their manager would really like, before he embarks on the last leg of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup finals, is to measure up against a team he rates as the best around. That is one of the reasons that Capello has had so few withdrawals ahead of this match: his players know this is rather more than a friendly.
Last night in training at the stadium, Capello was without Emile Heskey who began the session but ended it on the sideline still carrying the Achilles injury that affected him over the weekend. Heskey has quickly become an important component of Capello's England team but there is no shortage of options for the Italian. Last night Capello spent time individually coaching Carlton Cole, most likely to make his debut for England tonight. He could also turn to Peter Crouch, whose record of 14 goals in 30 caps has not yet earned him a start under the Italian.
As for the formation, it was evident in one comment from Capello yesterday that he intends to match Spain at their own game. "This will be a very important test because when you play against Spain, it's not easy for anyone because they play with one forward and a lot of players in midfield," Capello said. "They are very good technically. For this reason, we have to choose the position in the centre field, and you have to press a lot these players."
That would suggest that Capello will opt for the 4-5-1 formation, or 4-3-3 when they are attacking, that served him so well against Croatia in September. That would probably mean Shaun Wright-Phillips on the right wing playing off Heskey or Carlton Cole in the centre, with either Stewart Downing or Gabriel Agbonlahor on the opposite flank. The centre of the midfield would be occupied by Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick and Gareth Barry to counteract the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Marcos Senna and David Silva.
Capello regards this as a test of his team's ability to cope with, in his own words, a "different style" to Germany but he also seems anxious to make sure that the spirit from his squad is still intact. "I want to see the confidence and the spirit of the team, the spirit of England," he said. "We have to play against all the teams in the world convinced that we can win. I want to see this from my players. We want to see players without fear and with confidence. This is a very important step for me.
"When we played against Germany [in November], after one year [in the job], I knew which position we were in. Now, I don't know. After two months, we have to recover all those things I talked about before."
From an English England manager those words might have sounded like they had been stolen from Mike Bassett; this being Capello with four wins out of four in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup finals they are regarded as profound. For all his close attention to detail in the preparation, coaching and tactical awareness of his players, there is always a pre-match word from Capello about the good old English spirit. He clearly values it.
Unfortunately, for all the seriousness with which he prepares for a friendly against Fernando Torres and his Euro 2008-winning colleagues, Capello announced yesterday that he would be making at least five substitutions at half-time tonight. It had been done, he said, because he had an agreement with certain Premier League managers. "There will be a lot of substitutions because I have to respect the wishes of the club," Capello said. "Some of them will play the first half. There will be five substitutions during the game."
So this was a deal he had struck? "No, no. I've never been compromised," Capello replied. "I've never given [sic] a compromise. I know the problems of the managers at the clubs because I was one, and I can help them. I hope they help me when I need them."
It certainly sounded like a deal and Capello made it quite clear that he would be giving a chance to his youngest, most inexperienced players which may mean a first cap for James Milner as well as Carlton Cole. David Beckham does not fall into that category but given that Mark Hughes no doubt regards Wright-Phillips as being as crucial to Manchester City as Sir Alex Ferguson regards Carrick for Manchester United it is likely that there will be an opportunity for a certain 33-year-old to get a run-out on the right wing.
Of course, Capello was saying nothing about whether Beckham will get that 108th cap to equal Bobby Moore's record for an outfield player and you cannot rule him out as a starter. "I have to choose the first XI and David Beckham is playing well with Milan," Capello said. "Perhaps he will play, but I'm not sure. David Beckham is important for the group at this moment." It is to Capello's credit that England have a lot more to look forward to tonight than just another Beckham cap.
Spain have kept a clean sheet against England in five of the last seven matches. England won three, however, including on penalties at Euro '96.Reuse content