James Lawton: Brazil reduce lions' roar to a lamb's lament

With a couple of exceptions England's understudies were so lacking that Capello's options are already looking thin
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Faith that the restorative power of Fabio Capello will make England serious World Cup contenders has always had its limits and we may have found one of them here in the desert.

With most of the front-line troops nursing one kind of wound or another, defeat by Brazil, the tournament favourites, was always guaranteed a soft landing but this shouldn't disguise an unwelcome fact. It is that, without reaching for their higher gears, Dunga's Brazil made Capello's resources beyond the marquee names look shockingly thin.

The problem was not that England lost or that the margin could easily have been three of four goals greater, but that they did it so feebly, so artlessly. Wayne Rooney, long before the end, must have felt that he had just been appointed not England captain but temporary patrol leader.

With the most striking exception of James Milner's uncomplicated urge to strike at the opposition whenever possible, which wasn't often, and some dogged effort from Joleon Lescott, England's work did not speak of young lions growling at the heels of their betters but too many lambs gaping into an abyss.

Harsh? You might think so in all the circumstances, but you didn't need to be a mind reader to suspect that Capello, hardly the relaxed figure we have seen recently, might well have been grappling with something like the same conclusion.

His nightmare is that, with the current evidence of fragility in some of his cornerstone players, and claims by the Brazilians, among others, that the pressure in the upper echelon of the Premier League demands that too many star performers are required to battle on dangerously while suffering long-term injuries, he may be obliged to flout one of his cardinal principles – the one that insists that whatever a player's talent or influence he performs only if he is fit.

Capello's predecessor Sven Goran Eriksson shot a field gun through such a belief before the last two World Cups. On both occasions he took key players who were demonstrably far from adequate fitness, David Beckham and Michael Owen to the Far East, Wayne Rooney and again Owen to Germany. In Germany Eriksson compounded the damage by selecting the utterly unschooled Theo Walcott, thus effectively deploying three strikers, two of them plainly injured, one of them just as clearly unqualified.

One legend of the English game exclaimed, "You've got to be joking", when he heard the news of Walcott's selection and another, World Cup-winning George Cohen, had been four years earlier equally aghast when he noted the obvious lack of proper fitness in Beckham and Owen when they arrived in Japan.

Many suspected there was a commercial explanation lurking in the wings when Beckham was unable to contribute more to a warm-up game in Kobe than a pre-match session of keepy-uppy for adoring young Japanese fans.

However, here last Saturday you were reminded of another motivation – sheer desperation.

Capello is emphatic he will not go the Eriksson route of hope, prayers and speculation, but if he was ever to question his own principles it might well have happened privately on Saturday night.

We are constantly told that World Cups, especially the ones we have seen in the modern era, are not won by teams but squads. It is also true that as far back as 1966 England had in their apparent second echelon players who would leap forward and seize their days, young men of the quality of the late Alan Ball, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst.

You had to strain hard to hear the faintest echo of such a possibility in the action at the Khalifa Stadium and certainly when Capello later claimed he had learnt a lot it was fair to guess that not much had been positive.

He complained about the slowness of England's play, the often still-born passing movements and another rebuke – or was it a lament? – came in the form of repeated references not just to the technical facility of the Brazilians but also their ferociously employed strength.

Anyone who ever thought that the Brazilian tradition was based solely on the range of their extraordinary virtuosity could not have made the barest analysis of Pele's physical impact. But even by the rarely less-than-sturdy standards of Brazil, Dunga's team did exhibit remarkable strength.

This was most obvious in the power of centre-backs Lucio – not least when he raced through and smashed a 20-yard drive against Ben Foster's post – and Thiago da Silva. But all over the field the Brazilians were sharper and much harder in the tackle. Once, Michel Bastos fell while carrying the ball out of defence yet he still managed to retained control of the ball shake off two England challengers.

When Capello cried, "We must make our tackles", he was no doubt merely echoing the main thrust of his half-time homily.

Those of the English replacement detail here who make it to South Africa – and but for Milner and Lescott you couldn't be overly optimistic – will at least have some deeper perspective on what is required in football's ultimately tournament.

This was England's third defeat by a top 10 nation under Capello and, despite the absence of so many key players, it may well have been the most significant in that the Brazilians underlined all those qualities that in the past have so often hauntingly proved beyond the reach of English teams. The differences between the teams could scarcely have been defined more starkly. They were matters of speed, touch and strength. Inevitably, you could also throw in an implicit coherence.

While it was being demonstrated, those who have already invested in the Brazilian cause can hardly have felt even a twinge of disquiet, especially when Capello made it clear that, all in all, his raw, cowed team had almost certainly lost to the strongest team in the world. Yes, stronger than Spain, he said, and with a comparable technical capacity.

For the dispassionate lover of football this at least had to be heartening news. When all else in football appears to have changed, including the perception being challenged by the expensively fuelled campaign of Qatar to play hosts in 2022 that vital to a World Cup's success is the involvement of a well established, national football culture, the strength and the continuity of the Brazil effort is one huge source of relief.

Dunga is said by some to be assembling a team of well-muscled pragmatism. Yet this is to ignore that within the tactics of the modern game, strenuous defence, two withdrawn midfielders, Brazil are plainly able to exhibit most of those qualities which have made the greatest football nation. No age of football, or the strongest of modern teams, would not benefit from marvels like Pele or Gerson or Tostao, but in players like Kaka and Saturday's star, Villarreal's quick and clever raider Nilmar, the five-time champions can still point to exquisitely realised moments and say: "Look, yes we are Brazilians."

This is also true of the immensely strong Internazionale right -back Maicon, who in strength and drive to go forward carried at least a whiff of the great Carlos Alberto. Talking of strength, the winger Givanildo Viera De Sousa, known at Porto for good reason as Hulk, came on late to suggest that if Dunga's Brazil cannot always cut a team to pieces, they do have the option of pounding you to dust.

Unsurprisingly, England's muted young lions continued to wilt. Some will have to practise their roars. Others may conclude that there is perhaps no longer much point.