James Lawton: Capello has little to prove tonight – the players are the ones accused

It was the extent of Rooney's failure, and the surliness of his reaction to the complaints of the England fans, which sounded the loudest alarm bell
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The Independent Football

Fabio Capello is allegedly on trial at Wembley tonight but the truth, surely, is starkly different. If you could find a dock big enough, it would more properly be filled by the men who shape English football, both on and off the field.

Capello's reputation has been dragged progressively lower ever since England's implosion at the World Cup, a denouement made doubly shocking by the ease, even the authority, with which they qualified. Now at the start of the road to the European Championship finals, from which the England were excluded so wretchedly in 2008, it is possible to sense another rush to judgement, rather as you feel the first wisps of an impending hurricane.

If it happens, it should be called Hurricane Humbug.

A huge burden of responsibility has been placed on the Italian's shoulders, some of it valid, no doubt, but much of it ludicrous, and in the latter category not least is the refusal to accept quite how low has run the stock of credible, native-born candidates to replace such key figures as Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and Frank Lampard in tonight's opener against Bulgaria.

Still, Capello goes to trial with all kinds of indictments pinned to a now well-grooved forehead, including the utterly absurd one that he did something more nefarious than state the blindingly obvious when saying that at 35, as he recovers from serious injury and is marooned in the second-rate Major League Soccer, David Beckham's international career is probably over.

Capello's body language will tonight be studied, microscopically and relentlessly, and heaven forbid he should even marginally fracture his syntax when reviewing a performance that isn't at least as spectacular as the 4-1 win in Zagreb which gave the drive to the World Cup such momentum.

The real issue, though, is not Capello's ability to organise a football team – he has been doing that with consummate proficiency ever since he retired as a player dedicated and professional enough to win four scudettos – three with Juventus, one with Milan – but whether the players in his charge can begin to dispel the grim impression that some of them have reputations which have been grossly inflated – and that others are simply just not good enough.

Inevitably, this brings us to Wayne Rooney. When Capello, on what must have been the bleakest night of his career as a coach, said that he just could not recognise some of the players who went through the motions in arguably England's worst-ever performance against Algeria in the group game in Cape Town, Rooney surely was at the forefront of his thoughts.

Rooney, who had carried so many hopes so iridescently before his injury in Munich in March, was more than a disappointment. He was, however temporarily, a walking manifestation of a failed football culture and it only got worse when the young German team applied the sword so effortlessly in Bloemfontein a week or so later.

Rooney, unquestionably, was Capello's best hope of fulfilling his promise to take England to the World Cup final, and it was the extent of the player's failure, and the surliness of his reaction to the complaints of the English fans that came mildly enough in the circumstances, which sounded the loudest alarm bell.

If Capello could not trust Rooney to perform, if he couldn't see him as a source of strength and fluency and sheer virtuosity that could tip the balance of any game, where could he reasonably turn? No other English player begins to offer the range of Rooney's talent or intuition. Steven Gerrard has spectacular qualities, but tactical coherence is not one of them, and so England were essentially lost.

But at £6m a year, asks an increasingly vociferous prosecution, should the coach not have been able to find a way? Could he not have kept the mood of the players sweeter, provided them with a little more day-to-day gratification in their remote training centre? Maybe he could have done that. Previous coaches did, even to the point of hauling along bouncy castles for the kids, but to what gain beyond another round of ultimately failed action?

No, it is not, when you get right down to it, Fabio Capello who has to provide the big answers tonight. For any coach there is a recurring question: can you produce a winning team? And for any interrogator, there is the same qualification to any answer: you give me the players of a basic quality, and I will give you some results.

Capello said that to Milan and produced four scudettos and the Champions League. He said it to Roma and backed it up with the league title. He said it to Juventus and delivered two titles without asking for the corrupt help which led to them being revoked. He won La Liga for Real Madrid twice at an interval of 10 years, the second time after swiftly turning the rabble known as Los Galacticos into a fighting unit.

This is not the record of a man easily scorned, a man whose impatience with some of the details of a national coach's job, he would argue, has never affected his ability to judge the development of a player and his ability to contribute to a team.

What players are contending for a place in the England team in these uncertain days? Perhaps players like Adam Johnson of Manchester City and Theo Walcott of Arsenal, young men who some thought might have made an impact in South Africa but who Capello decided had to make further progress before they were ready for such a challenge. Their time may have come now and certainly it was interesting to hear Walcott's emphatic theory that his exclusion from the World Cup was something that made him stop and think about where he was going.

Maybe Wayne Rooney will tonight suggest he too has been obliged to consider that question, and from a point much further down the road. This, certainly, seems a much more relevant line of enquiry as England, yet again attempt to remake themselves as a serious force.

Rooney, despite all his talent, has still much to prove. It is a charge, whatever the prosecution thinks, that doesn't stick so easily to Fabio Capello.