Believe it or not, the past week was a good one for English football; at least for those who take the mid-term or long-term view. Fabio Capello, having confirmed that he is definitely upping sticks in less than 20 months' time, cannot be included in their number, but he too can see that there should be benefits from Stuart Pearce's Under-21 squad having won through on Tuesday to the finals of their own European Championship next summer.
So swift is the turnover at that level and so difficult the qualification for an eight-team tournament – even group winners have to take part in a play-off – that England are the only country to have made it for the past three competitions; all under Pearce, who is enhancing his reputation even if on his own admission he is not ready to become Capello's successor in 2012.
His involvement as a coach to the seniors undoubtedly helped the progression of players like Joe Hart, Tom Huddlestone, James Milner, Theo Walcott, Adam Johnson, Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs from one squad to the other, and it is unfortunate that with both teams now playing on Fridays and Tuesdays, Pearce's involvement is confined to the juniors; a shame, too, that the Football Association have not yet found another English coach to work with Capello as promised.
There will often be clashes of interest between the two groups, as there were last week when Capello insisted on the Under-21s' star player – Wilshere – missing the crucial play-off game in Romania, only to leave him as an unused substitute at Wembley against Montenegro. Fortunately, the younger team scraped a goalless draw without him, though his craft and creativity were badly missed in a game where an away goal would have made them so much more comfortable. It was not just a short-term but a short-sighted decision.
Next month, when the Under-21s intend playing a friendly, it will be more acceptable for Wilshere and one or two others to join the seniors for their home game with France, not least because Capello believes that appearing at Wembley is important for young players: "They have to play in Wembley because when you play away it's different. It's a big step when you play here in this stadium."
Wilshere, possibly Gibbs and one other will be summoned. Michael Mancienne, Sunderland's Jordan Henderson and Newcastle's Andy Carroll (who appears to have missed his chance last week for disciplinary reasons) are contenders from each area of the squad. Mancienne, who has never quite lived up to his early Chelsea reputation as the new Rio Ferdinand, can play in three positions and believes that his versatility is an advantage rather than a hindrance. Bolton's Fabrice Muamba is another who could challenge for the holding midfield role in which Gareth Barry has been inadequate since the World Cup.
Barry was hardly alone in having a poor game last Tuesday. Glen Johnson needs some competition to shake him out of his comfort zone at right-back (Mancienne's position as Under-21s captain); Ashley Young again failed to take his chance as Milner's deputy, as did Peter Crouch after injuries to the more mobile Darren Bent and Jermain Defoe, both of whom are better partners for the ailing Wayne Rooney. Adam Johnson started brightly before fading and, having already been put in his place by Manchester City's manager Roberto Mancini, will not be encouraged to hear Capello's comparison with Walcott: "When Theo will be fit, he is different. [Johnson] is technically better but not as fast as Theo. In modern football, to be fast is really important."
Walcott was piggy in the middle of the senior and Under-21 squads in the summer of 2009, when his club manager Arsène Wenger protested about him being used by both. It is not difficult to see Wilshere and Gibbs being in the same situation next year, when England play Switzerland on 4 June, then Thailand on an unspecified date just before the Under-21 finals begin on 11 June in Denmark.
Montenegro finish their season with a winnable game at home to Bulgaria, so England may need to beat Wales in March and the Swiss to keep pace with them. Capello is "absolutely" confident of topping the group and avoiding a play-off, but admits: "Every time you don't win, the phantoms of the World Cup come back."
Three to step up:
Originally regarded as a classy centre-back, Mancienne has recently played in a holding midfield role for Wolverhampton Wanderers, where he is on loan from Chelsea for another season. But he captains the Under-21s from right-back, and the senior team badly need cover and competition for the hit-and-miss Glen Johnson. Picked once by Fabio Capello, he was an unused substitute in the friendly victory away to Germany two years ago.
An ankle injury picked up against Aston Villa in August means that the Everton midfielder will not be available for England until the February friendly with Argentina. That is a shame since he deserves a chance in the Gareth Barry role. Forceful and physically strong for a 19-year-old, he has played in every England age group and was one of the stars of the Under-21 finals in 2009.
The gifted Arsenal prodigy is almost certain to be in the squad for next month's friendly, with France, as he was for the Montenegro game without getting on the pitch. Mature and confident beyond his 18 years, he benefited from a loan spell at Bolton and has been worth his place in Arsène Wenger's midfield this season. Stand by for another row if England want him in the senior team and then the Under-21 finals in June.
Group by group guide
Russia 9 pts
Slovakia winning in Russia and then losing to Armenia offered the Irish a great opportunity, which they fluffed by losing 3-2 at home to the Russians, then surrendering a lead in Slovakia last week as Robbie Keane missed a penalty and two other good chances. Next come double-headers all round before the end of the season: for Ireland against Macedonia, where they have dropped crucial points in the past, for hot favourites Russia against Armenia and for Slovakia against Andorra.
Northern Ireland 5
Faroe Islands 1
Italy should be given three points from their abandoned match after rioting by Serbian supporters in Genoa and would then be three clear of Slovenia, whom they visit in March, before hosting Estonia. Northern Ireland, like their neighbours in Group B, wasted a chance by allowing the Faroe Islands to hold them to a 1-1 draw, which is likely to prove costly. Next they go to Serbia in March – assuming the Serbs are allowed to play in Belgrade.
The other teams in the group were unlucky to draw Montenegro, whose Uefa ranking alongside the likes of Liechtenstein is only as low because they are the continent's newest international side. Having played one extra group game and picked up a point at Wembley, they are now flying unexpectedly high, and are the only team in the competition apart from Belarus not to have conceded a goal in four games. But they do not play again until June, at home to Bulgaria. England go to Cardiff in March and are due to visit Podgorica next October, hoping that the Welsh can manage to take some points off Montenegro in the previous month.
Czech Republic 6
Hoping to push the Czechs for second place, Scotland suffered a costly 1-0 loss to them in Prague before a 3-2 home defeat by Spain that featured an unexpected comeback to equalise after being 2-0 down. Now they face a wait of almost 11 months before playing another game. Next September come two home games that will have to be won, against the Czechs and Lithuania. Both should have one more win by then, while Spain will be nearly home and hosed.Reuse content