Chris McGrath: The visitors are no punch-bags – Vucinic would get into Capello's side ahead of Rooney

Talking Point: Disaffected England fans can't have it both ways, saying these games are meaningless and in the same breath lamenting the side's decline and fall

There is a small but crucial difference between being caught with your trousers down, and putting them on your head. And, for the time being at any rate, it might well be sufficient to prompt neutrals, asked to name a composite XI from both dressing rooms at Wembley this evening, to pick Mirko Vucinic before Wayne Rooney.

Even to those who have long enjoyed the Vucinic show in Serie A – as condensed against Switzerland the other night when, without a hint of a smile, he celebrated a delectable goal with that shorts-pulled-over-the-ears celebration – that might have seemed a pretty far-fetched suggestion only a few months ago.

Had Fabio Capello stuck with his original precept, that he would only select players who are fit and in form, he would certainly have dropped Rooney during the World Cup. Capello was hired, after all, partly on the basis that he would be frigidly indifferent to reputation, his predecessor having sometimes given the impression that he might pass round an autograph book during his team talk. On the other hand, the very fact that Capello has called up an uncapped 33-year-old for tonight shows the poverty of his alternatives.

No slight on Kevin Davies, whose unexpected chance has warmed the cockles of many fans, pundits and fellow professionals. It's just that when everyone abruptly turned on Capello during the summer, very few could suggest any remotely credible improvements to his squad. You certainly didn't see too many banging the table, demanding to know where Davies was spending his summer.

There seemed to be a consensus, equally, that Gareth Barry is only just eligible as an international midfielder. But Capello himself will trace the disintegration of his World Cup campaign to the day Barry got injured. In view of its notorious technical inadequacies, the one surfeit he must have anticipated in the English game was in holding midfielders – blokes who could break up play, nudge a safe pass. For his club, it must be said, Barry himself seldom looks primarily a holding player. In the event, however, Capello was so mystified by the lack of options that he started against the USA without a holding midfielder – Aaron Lennon, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and James Milner started. We can only assume that Graham Norton was busy that evening.

Or maybe he was simply unfit, or out of form – unlike Barry, presumably, when wheeled out in a bath-chair against Algeria. Even his relatively modest capabilities remained painfully beyond reach and, against Germany, he was memorably left for dead by Mesut Ozil. Some were deceived that Barry had been terminally exposed, there and then, as out of his depth. Restored to fitness, however, Barry will be just about the first name on Capello's teamsheet tonight.

England had dominated a qualifying group in which only Andorra did not owe their place in the competition to glasnost, and now here we are playing a nation of just 650,000. But those who view this encounter with apathy do both Montenegro and England a disservice. Since their collapse, the teams that represented the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have been shown up as far less than the sum of their vassal parts. And venerable football powers are learning that even nations with little obvious pedigree, nourished by renewed national pride, can represent a genuine hazard.

Slovakia and Slovenia, for instance, have both qualified for World Cups since independence. Montenegro themselves arrive here top of the group, with nine points from three games, despite only scoring three goals. Aside from the menace of Vucinic, they clearly know how to defend.

Disaffected England fans can't have it both ways. You can't say that games like this are meaningless, that nations like Montenegro are mere punch-bags, and in the same breath lament our decline and fall. You need only consider the recent travails of France and Italy to sense the shifting sands in international football. And the lack of time and continuity available to national coaches, to establish identity and rhythm for their team, can be exploited by rivals who confine their ambitions to stifling class. That's how Switzerland beat Spain at the World Cup. And that, in a shameful betrayal of their own stature and legacy, is also how the Dutch tried to win the final.

In tandem with the sort of dark genius by which Internazionale stopped Barcelona in the Champions League, encounters between emerging and established football nations can represent significant tests for the future direction of the game. Even Liechtenstein and Andorra, remember, nowadays seem to embrace a negativity that is not so much cynical as homicidal.

By the same token, it is as wrong to yawn over England's bright and purposeful performances since the summer as to imagine that Capello forfeited some divine right to the World Cup. Scandalously, the 2016 finals will be contested by 24 nations, making a nonsense of qualifying. But this time only 14 will qualify alongside the hosts, Poland and Ukraine. Switzerland away was a tougher task than was, say, Northern Ireland away for Italy last Friday. England won in great style; Italy were held to a goalless draw.

In the likes of Adam Johnson, Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere, meanwhile, Capello is blooding players whose chances of helping England do better would be greatly helped if we both understand and respect our limitations. Montenegro may have a smaller population than Birmingham, but it isn't the setting for some Tintin adventure. And while Barry is the cornerstone, Davies strains at the leash, and Vucinic is whipping off his shorts, it would be graceless to disparage positive achievements for either side.

Cipriani's banished talents deserve to ripen in warmer sporting climate

let us hope there are no bleak portents in the fact that Jack Wilshere could win his second cap for England on the very day when another precocious talent leaves these shores – banished, he may well suspect, by a sporting culture with an endemic dread of risk.

Danny Cipriani flies out to Australia today in the hope of discovering a more congenial environment for his coruscating but precarious talent. Exile with the Melbourne Rebels completes a journey in which Cipriani has himself, no doubt, made the occasional wrong turn – albeit perhaps the one that did him most harm, when hastening back too soon from a grotesque ankle injury in 2008, itself confirmation that his glamorous veneer conceals a deep grain of dedication. But the way he has since been frozen out by Martin Johnson, as he takes England into a World Cup year, measures a worrying gap from the judgement of a man with vastly more coaching experience in Sir Ian McGeechan, who put Cipriani on standby for the Lions last year.

Still, we are where we are. And, whether chicken or egg, Johnson would be within his rights to say that Cipriani did not force his way back on his attention in his club game. But he is still only 22, and the embers of that unforgettable debut against Ireland could yet be stoked into new flames on the fast pitches Down Under.

There have been curious stories in recent weeks, almost inevitably, that may fuel the suspicions of those who wonder whether he is simply running away. Cipriani has scoffed at reports that he was tempted, after training with various soccer clubs this summer, to turn professional. And he has apologised to his new team-mates for a brief delay in his departure, attributed to some visa hold-up. In both cases, regardless, there is a hint of the evanescence that defines the best and worst of Cipriani: a fleeting inspiration, a moment of inattention. But his admirers will persevere in the view that his emigration primarily discloses an undiminished instinct for adventure – and in the hope that some day both Cipriani and England can share the dividends.

News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
life
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits