James Lawton: Capello's reign may be redeemed by Rooney's rising influence


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The Independent Football

There was a day in the life of Bulgarian coach, Lothar Matthäus, when he came within a heartbeat of shutting down Diego Maradona. It was in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City and it might well have won Germany a World Cup final.

That was 25 years ago but in Sofia last night it might have been a thousand.

For some time Matthäus has been trying to impose similar levels of defensive stringency on his team but all of it was swept beyond recall by Fabio Capello's new England.

This said two things. One was that Matthäus is swimming against an impossible tide. The other was that when Capello agonised over whether to bow to the storm of advice that he should walk away after his team's catastrophic World Cup last summer he may just have made the right decision when he dug in his Italian heels.

It could just be that there is still a little life left and maybe a touch of destiny left in an England governed by Il Capo.

There was a mere sprinkling of the old guard, John Terry, Ashley Cole and, of hugely gathering significance, Wayne Rooney, but this was a team who showed every sign they might be be shaping up into some significant growth.

Inevitably, Capello had his moments of outrage. He scowled and yelled into the night from time to time but, however poor Bulgaria became under minimal pressure, there was always a big slice of reassurance for the England coach. It was the counterpart to his despair in South Africa when he faced the great crisis of his career. In the World Cup, not just against Germany but teams much lower down the international ladder, he looked in vain for evidence of players ready to take up the challenge of competing at the highest level of the game.

Last night on the road to the European Championship finals, for which England will now surely qualify, not in some desperate scramble but relative serenity, wherever Capello looked there was evidence of growing self-belief.

No one, of course, epitomised the new luxury more than the renascent Rooney. He moved his goals total to five in seven games and, if neither of the two he scored last night made more than the most formal demands on the most basic of his talents, they were still evidence of soaring confidence. There was also more than a hint that Rooney is not only enjoying his football but also his life. He looks at peace with himself and all those around him – and last night it helped that this number included such as Ashley Young and Theo Walcott. They too gave the impression of footballers who were relishing every moment of the action.

There was no Steven Gerrard and, until near the end, no Frank Lampard. This indeed was a changing of the guard and then when you considered that Jack Wilshere was still fighting for fitness, still yearning to push back the boundaries of his experience and his ambition, the sense of new possibilities was quite overwhelming. How it progresses from here is, of course, at the mercy of the old intangible, but clearly now there is a new pattern, and a range of options, that was plainly not available a year ago.

Of course, not many teams will prostrate themselves as abjectly as Bulgaria did last night. Defences will not crumble at the first sound of Rooney thunder – or buy the dummies and feints offered by the likes of Young and Walcott

But then England have shown a certain capacity to adapt themselves to the new challenge. Rooney, above all, has realised some new dimensions – and some old instincts.

Capello refused to be euphoric, of course, but he is aware of his growing choices and the increasing possibility that when he surrenders it might be on a note of, if not triumph, a level of achievement that seemed so lost not so long ago. What we saw last night was not a set of certainties but the clear impression of a team on the move, a group of players who have come to in the sudden belief that they can achieve things which before did not seem to possible.

Most conspicuously, this was the story of the revived meaning of Wayne Rooney on a late summer's night in Sofia. Every team, great, brilliant or merely good, needs a point of focus, a place where they can go with confidence. Somewhere to be sure that an authority will be struck, a challenge will be met.

It is scarcely believe when you think of how he far he fell just a year ago that place has become Wayne Rooney. Last night it continued to expand at a most remarkable rate. Fabio Capello did well to conceal the extent of his pleasure.

Month to remember

*Wayne Rooney's last four goals for England have all come in the month of September

1 v Croatia (h), 9 Sept 2009 Won 5-1

1 v Switzerland (a), 7 Sept 2010 Won 3-1

2 v Bulgaria (h), 2 Sept 2011 Won 3-0