James Lawton: Beckham is still a puzzling piece in England's jigsaw

With so many options on the right wing, will Capello stick with Goldenballs in his squad for South Africa?
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The Independent Football

You might call it the last mystery of Fabio Capello, the piece of his English jigsaw that doesn't quite fit. It is the fact that he refuses so obdurately to remove the last of the international lustre of Goldenballs.

Discouraging the remnants of Michael Owen's ambition has seemed to be the slightest of chores for Il Capo.

Just one setting of that formidable jawline is enough to condemn Owen to the wilderness. Meanwhile, David Beckham's hopes of a record fourth appearance in a World Cup squad, four years after he tearfully resigned the captaincy, are nurtured with the kind of unswerving dedication you might find in a high- dependency ward.

On Wednesday the gap between the situations of Owen, who launched himself on to world football's radar with a brilliant performance against Argentina in St Etienne on the same night Beckham was sent off for a piddling foul, could scarcely have been wider.

Beckham was brought on for still another cameo stint long after the outcome of the crushing victory over Croatia that confirmed England's place in the finals, and a 100 per cent qualifying record, had been decided – and he received quite the biggest ovation of the night. Owen spent the day at the races.

What's it all about, Fabio? It's a hazardous question to pose for those of us who are frequently offered psychiatric help out of the obsessive belief that no player in the history of English football has been quite as indulged as Beckham – and that the divergence between his celebrity and his achievements has long been one of the more bizarre features of English life.

But then sometimes it is hard to stop yourself. Wednesday night was such an occasion when the hero of the nation basked in the adulation of an audience who had just seen a magnificent team performance and fresh evidence, from Aaron Lennon, that Beckham had, at best, been consigned to joint third in the running for a place on the right flank of England's midfield. Give unto Caesar, of course, but for how long, and at what expense to the theory that a place in Capello's England side is something won by the hardest and most relevant effort and not reputation?

The oddity in Beckham's place in the margins of the team is that in less than two years Capello's building has been as effective as it has been relentless.

So it is natural that there is a tendency to believe that whatever reasons he has for a retaining a player who, while retaining a God-given and splendidly practised touch with the dead ball and one with which he is granted a little time and space, has slowed to near zero pace and will be 35 by the time the finals unfold in South Africa next summer, they have some validity.

Certainly, though, it is interesting to recall Capello's response, soon after he was appointed, to a question about the English furore over the possibility that Beckham's career might not be crowned by a 100th cap. Could he, for example, imagine that if some icon of Italian football, say Paolo Maldini, had been anchored short of the landmark, while moving to a much inferior level of football, there would be a national outcry? Capello said: "Not in a million years."

Why not? He didn't elaborate but there was a sense that he was suggesting that a player makes his mark in the history of a team not by the number of his appearances but the consistent quality of his effort.

Now, though, you have to wonder if the Beckham string has finally run out.

Lennon's mesmerising and shatteringly effective performance against Croatia surely demands that the door is closed on any debate over the two places allocated to the position of wide right. It is, you have to believe, a hand-to-hand fight waged by the speed and bite of Lennon and Theo Walcott, but then Capello's loyalty to Beckham is so extraordinary, so unyielding, that you wonder if the manager's instinct is to continue to placate the ageing trouper's vast and doggedly enamoured following.

The theory is not so outlandish when we return to the brusqueness of Capello's rejection of Owen's last claims.

Has Capello gone – in just one instance – for the line of least resistance? Is he playing a game that will be ended, with all due homage to Beckham, when the time comes to point out that if England are to win the World Cup for a second time they will need a squad whose every place has been fought for over the best part of three years.

For Beckham much of that time will have been spent resolving the issues provoked by his lucrative but ill-starred move to LA Galaxy.

The fact that Capello insisted Beckham return to European football at the highest level if he wanted to extend his international career was a firm enough indicator that the player could operate on his terms only for so long. It also needs to be remembered that, despite the fact that he received good notices for his stint in Milan, Beckham failed to convince the England manager that he should have more than a peripheral role in the march to South Africa.

On Wednesday an inbuilt contradiction was never more evident. While Beckham stepped another stride beyond such England giants as Sir Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore in the list of international appearances, he seemed further than ever from the core of the team.

Shaun Wright-Phillips fumbled his chance to make a telling impression against Slovenia last Saturday night. Lennon seized his with perfect timing and Walcott, arguably still the first choice when all candidates are fit, was out of action. So where did that leave Beckham? It was with yet another rapturously received and utterly meaningless walk-on part.

None of this, it hardly needs saying, deflects from the scale of Capello's superb work. England have been transformed by the confidence of a man who plainly knows what he is doing.

He is a coach who has made nonsense of the argument that Frank Lampard and Steve Gerrard are congenitally incapable of operating in the same team. He told England's players that they had to smarten up on and off the field. He said he was making a call for maturity, as players and as men.

Most recently, he mocked suggestions that Glen Johnson was a glaring weak link and was rewarded with one of the more notable individual performances in a team effort of quite daunting quality.

"Yes, we can win the World Cup. Why not?" Capello said. It is the kind of question you ask only when you are sure of your audience. He knows football, we know without doubt now, and maybe he also knows even more about the age of celebrity in which the game has become such a significant part.

Soon enough his handling of Beckham, at no cost to anyone's popularity or attention to the business of making a team, may be seen as less of a puzzle and more the final evidence of something which created such a rare sense of well-being at Wembley this week. It was, maybe, the confirmation that England do indeed have a manager who has never been less than on top of his job.

England's right wing options

David Beckham

34 years old; Caps 114; Starts (sub) 101 (13); Goals 17

Never quick, and now conserves his energy, but his experience and composure make him a suseful sub. Still a superb delivery.

Aaron Lennon

22 years old; Caps 13; Starts (sub) 5 (8); Goals 0

Quick-footed, and quick on his feet. Able to operate on both wings and shoot with either foot. Delivery still suspect, but improving.

Theo Walcott

20 years old; Caps 8; Starts (sub) 6 (2); Goals 3

Pacy, and a decent finisher, but inconsistent and vulnerable to shoulder injuries.

Shaun Wright-Phillips

27 years old; Caps 27; Starts (sub) 13 (14); Goals 4

Regaining form back at City and is a threat running at defenders but crossing is poor.

Glenn Moore