James Lawton: Capello has finally rid England of that self-appointed favourites tag

In a perfect world Adam Johnson, one of the few pluses on Monday night, would have had more chance to prove that his emergence is indeed one of special quality
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The Independent Football

Fabio Capello has had his own good Madrid moments, not least when he whipped the galacticos into the coherence that won them their first Spanish title in four years in 2007. But there can be no doubt he would this week surely have given much for the one enjoyed by his only England predecessor to win the World Cup.

It just happened to be in Madrid where Sir Alf Ramsey, in the winter before the great prize was carried off, truly realised that he could make good on his assurance to players like Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton: "Gentleman, most certainly we will win the World Cup."

After England's masterful 2-0 win over Spain at the Bernabeu the formidable home coach Jose Villalonga declared: "England were superb – in this form they would have beaten anyone in the world."

Villalonga was shattered by the fact that the "wingless wonders" of England had not only beaten his team but left them in such confusion they spent most of the night frantically signalling to each other possible solutions. None was forthcoming. Thus Villalonga unhesitatingly placed his conquerors among the World Cup favourites.

At Wembley on Monday night Mexico's Javier Aguirre would have owned a nose of Pinocchio dimensions if he had been remotely as generous after England's 3-1 win.

There were, in fact, a few pluses. There were the stirrings of Steven Gerrard, a late flash from Adam Johnson which kept alive the hope that he may be a crucial late runner for South African glory. We had another lively showing by Peter Crouch and some excellent shot-stopping by Robert Green. Also a few moments of reassurance that Wayne Rooney is indeed potentially the player of the great tournament. For the rest of it, however, the agitated body language of Capello seemed entirely justified.

Yet there was something reassuring, too, about the fact that for once an England team were being sent off to a major tournament without the clamour of a revivalist meeting.

This time England at least seemed cured of the hubris that in the last decade or so has made them raging favourites in their own minds. The "golden generation" were always just one tournament away from the ultimate vindication. Not on Monday, though.

So alarming in defence that even the prospect of the return of Ashley Cole and John Terry did not bring anything like total reassurance, flaccid in midfield except for the strivings of Gerrard, England at times left Rooney nearly as frustrated as Capello.

Still, with Capello around there is a sense that when it really matters England will have the certainty of intention that went so disastrously missing under the majority of his predecessors when the action became most serious.

Predictably, he pulled out the hair-dryer at half-time with a vigour that was entirely warranted and it seems reasonable to believe that it will be a different, more systematic England when the United States attempt to throw up the first obstacle in a group which should be mopped up in some comfort.

Capello offers us the same encouragement that Ramsey did all those years ago. It is of a coach practical enough to jettison preconceptions that do not survive the most basic tests. In this bleak category it is hard not to imagine the ghost of Michael Carrick's opportunity to move on to another level.

He was disastrously irresolute against the quick and nimble-witted Mexicans and once again the inclination was to send out a search party for the player who in the middle of the season before last seemed to be a prospective candidate for Player of the Year. More watchful in defence, sharper and more creative in his passing, Carrick seemed finally to have dispelled the doubts which came when Sir Alex Ferguson made his expensive investment.

Capello plainly liked the rhythm Carrick's passing can create on his best days but his faith must now be running at around zero.

With the injury worries surrounding Gareth Barry, a player whose true international class is perhaps not universally accepted, Capello's optimum line-up is probably: James/Green, G Johnson, Ferdinand, Terry, Cole, Walcott, Lampard, Gerrard, A Johnson, Crouch, Rooney. In a perfect world, Adam Johnson would have had more chance to prove that his emergence is indeed one of special quality but it is perhaps worth remembering that in an arguably more challenging group back in 1966, Ramsey was still obliged to battle with some huge decisions.

Most notably, he had finally to confirm his belief that the traditional value of specialist wide men should not keep out players who could make a greater all-round contribution, in this case two young midfielders of brilliant maturity, Alan Ball and Martin Peters. Ramsey also had to weigh the possibility Jimmy Greaves, arguably the most gifted natural striker in the history of the English game, might have to lose out to the strength and unflagging sense of team displayed by Roger Hunt and Geoff Hurst.

In the end Ramsey made the right decisions, and they were more challenging ones probably than those now facing Capello. But, most of all, he had to retain a belief in final victory in the face of some sharply discouraging evidence.

Capello's England suffered nothing more potentially debilitating than a wave of indifference when they walked off the field on Monday night.

Ramsey's team were sent off with a howl of boos in their ears when they drew their opening game with Uruguay 0-0. This was despite the fact that the South Americans had long been held in awe for their subtle, tank-trap defence. Ramsey, though, refused to be unnerved, even when the Alan Hansen of his day, Jimmy Hill, announced that England didn't have a hope in hell of winning the tournament, and added: "Don't blame Alf, no one could win with this lot."

Ramsey's response was to take the team off to the film studios in Pinewood and have them inspired by a team talk from the famous Scottish patriot Sir Sean Connery. Capello no doubt will come up with his own psychological devices when he gathers his men in their high veld headquarters. Despite the concerns provoked by Mexico, he may well consider it a little too soon to call in 007.