In their 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic on Wednesday, either England were "outplayed, outthought, outmanoeuvred and outclassed" (Mark Lawrenson); or "the reaction of the players during the game was positive" (Fabio Capello). Football has always been a game of opinion, which is part of its charm. In his opinions – at least the publicly expressed ones – the hugely experienced England manager was clearly in a minority.
What we cannot know is what he thinks privately, though there were hints at areas of disquiet. He shrugged them off with reference to the players' deficient physical condition after a single Premier League game, pointing out that two of the key men clearly performing below par, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard, have suffered from injuries as well as lack of match practice.
"It's impossible to play at this moment at 100 per cent," Capello said. "I saw Rooney and Gerrard on TV and [Franco] Baldini saw them in the stadium and told me 'Fabio, both are so-so'. They need two games more and they will be alright."
It was unfortunate, then, that they should be given a crucial role, apparently playing behind Jermain Defoe in what the manager insisted was a 4-3-2-1 formation. If this was the case, the problem with a trio of David Beckham, Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard was the lack of a defensive midfielder. Hence the vulnerability to counter-attack that the manager rightly lamented, compounded by Wes Brown's poor positional sense.
Portsmouth's Glen Johnson is Brown's understudy but there are two better right-backs in Manchester alone, in his club-mate Gary Neville, now recovered from injury, and at the other end of the age scale, City's Micah Richards, who can do what Brown did by scoring from a set-piece, as well as defending.
After what should be merely a confidence-building World Cup exercise against Andorra on 6 September in Barcelona, the most important single figure required against Croatia four days later will be another United player, Owen Hargreaves, who is becoming worryingly prone to injury. His return would also force a decision about who fits into an oversubscribed midfield and where. Gerrard and Lampard? Joe Cole? Beckham still?
We have been here before; for the last five years, in fact, which is one reason why Capello seems to be presiding over the end of a tired old era rather than the start of a bright new one. Similarly up front. A year ago, Emile Heskey and Michael Owen blitzed weak Israeli and Russian defences but is the former international quality? Is Owen fit? And which role will transform Rooney into the lion of 2004?
Experienced as he is, Capello also needs to be told there is one battle he will not win: "I think one of the big problems is the newspapers, which don't support us." As a Sunday paper man put it to him: "Yes, the newspapers keep giving the ball away."Reuse content