Switzerland must be beaten if Capello is to quell the dissent
Manager faces uneasy summer if England fail to record victory in Euro 2012 qualifier
It is thanks to this month's Fifa scandal, the anticipation that preceded Saturday's Champions League final, and even the Championship play-off final, that England's last game of the season has crept up largely unnoticed in the calendar, an afterthought to what feels like 12 months of solid football since the start of last summer's World Cup.
But for Fabio Capello, Saturday's Euro 2012 qualifier against Switzerland at Wembley has been a preoccupation since the end of March when his team last played together in a friendly against Ghana. It is another one of those forks in the road for the England manager. Win, and everyone goes off happy on their holidays with England just two victories away from qualification for Euro 2012. Lose, and the picture changes again.
The situation in qualification Group G looks healthy for England whose closest challengers are the nation of Montenegro – population 630,000 – who got a draw at Wembley last October and are the opposition in England's last group game in four months' time. By then England could have sealed qualification already if they win on Saturday and against Bulgaria and Wales, even if it is as the best second-placed team in qualifying.
As with qualification for the 2010 World Cup, England's progress has been relatively serene under Capello although this time it has been in contrast to the issues off the pitch. There is no question about which of those was the biggest, or that it was a mess of Capello's own making. That was the sacking of Rio Ferdinand as captain and the reinstatement of John Terry in March, and then the subsequent botched job of telling Ferdinand the reasons for the decision.
Monday was the first occasion that Ferdinand and Capello had encountered one another in private within the England camp since the decision was made public and yesterday the pair were said to have shaken hands in private. Capello regards the matter as closed but there will undoubtedly be questions in his Friday press conference about Ferdinand, which will undoubtedly be much to the England manager's annoyance.
The players' attitude towards Terry's return as captain at the expense of Ferdinand has – in public at least – been the usual fence-sitting that we come to expect of England players on international duty. But in private it has contributed to the doubts that they have about their manager which date back to his chronic indecisiveness in South Africa during the team's disastrous World Cup finals campaign.
Those six weeks, when Capello could not make his mind up on who should play in goal for the first game against the United States and set his team up in the wrong way for the match against Germany, changed his relationship with his players forever. His aura has most definitely gone. The probability is that he will get them to Euro 2012 next summer, but once there it is anyone's guess as to whether they will perform better than their dismal efforts we witnessed last summer.
There have been small signs of dissent. The resignation of No 3 choice goalkeeper, Ben Foster, is not exactly the grounds for a revolution but he is not the only one. Robert Green also told Capello's staff after the Ghana friendly in March that he wanted to quit having been completely overlooked since that ill-fated US game in Rustenburg. He has been talked around, for now.
Capello is yet to decide whether he will go to Brazil at the end of July for the draw for the World Cup qualification. Of course, it will be his successor who fights that campaign but nonetheless Sven Goran Eriksson undertook the same duty for the Football Association at the equivalent draw for Euro 2008, even though he knew by then he was to leave the job before qualification began.
It is unlikely Switzerland will be good enough to beat England at Wembley on Saturday evening. Capello's side beat them 3-1 in Basel in September and the Swiss are all but out of the running for qualification. Since they lost at Wembley, their record goalscorer Alexander Frei, captain against England in September, has retired from international football, along with Marco Streller. As for England, only Michael Carrick is a doubt and may not recover from an ankle injury in time.
All of which makes it a must-win game for Capello. If he fails to beat Switzerland then he goes into the summer with all the old doubts from South Africa last year hanging over him. Underpinning the last year of the Capello regime is the reality that, come what may, he will leave after Euro 2012. And if he is seen to be faltering in qualification then the clamour will come for him to go before then.
Eriksson also went into his last tournament as England manager – the 2006 World Cup – knowing that he was finished as soon as England went out. However, he was told that his contract was to be ended early by the FA after he had secured qualification on the back of the "fake Sheikh" embarrassment in the January before the tournament. It was always the plan that Capello's contract would cover just the last World Cup and Euro 2012, which seemed sensible at the time. Two and a half years on and with enthusiasm sagging, it does not look so clever.
Stewart Downing said yesterday that Capello had told the players before training at Arsenal's London Colney training ground that Saturday's match was not to be treated as an end-of-season stroll. "The manager came in and said: 'No messing about, we are here to win the game.' That is why he has picked the squad – he has a lot of people to choose from. It is a difficult position to be in, to pick 18, because we are all playing well and fit and well. We should be confident of winning."
A resounding win over Switzerland will allow Capello to disappear for the summer – a watching brief at the Under-21s European championships in Denmark notwithstanding – in relative comfort. He would then only need wins over Bulgaria in Sofia and Wales at Wembley in early September to seal qualification. It should be simple but it all starts on Saturday and if England mess that game up then attention will swing back to their manager very quickly indeed.
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