James Lawton: New dawn and it's quite a wake-up call for Capello

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David Beckham's historic night quickly enough became Fabio Capello's bleak dawn. We all know this kind of morning. Everything seems a bit too much.

However, £6m a year provides a jauntier perspective and if England's new manager appeared to have several mountains to climb here, no one could say he hadn't been preaching patience almost from the moment he got off the plane. The one from Italy, that is, not the one which touched down at Charles de Gaulle.

Nor can it be said that Capello lacks the will to combine hard words with some uncompromising action. The cull which followed a first half of dismayingly limp performance was not so much a team change as a preliminary statement on quite what he thinks of England's celebrity establishment. Former captain John Terry, already smarting from Rio Ferdinand's preferment in the matter of the captain's armband, led the list of half-time of casualties, which also included Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and Joe Cole. Beckham followed 17 minutes later, blowing hard but not before reminding us that, like a boxer's punch, his ability to flight the odd beautiful ball will be the last asset to leave. Unfortunately, this was never enough to provide the kind of impact he was no doubt hoping for when telling us of his ambition to overhaul both Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore.

There will, you have to suspect, be quite a few more lectures, and many bouts of head-shaking, before the first signs of an authentic, full-blown English sunrise.

Though some wondered if the wholesale ransacking of an outplayed team at half-time was a concession to the demands on Champions League players, you had to fancy that Capello's first priority, given the man he is supposed to be and the scale of the challenge he faces, was to inject a little purpose, even pride into a group of players who seem intent on confirming their ranking among the also-rans of Europe.

Sending in Michael Owen and Peter Crouch was a desperate, but entirely rational, response to the near complete failure of Gerrard to help Rooney into even a semblance of a threat on the French goal. The fundamental problem was that the French underlined Capello's central problem almost every time they roused themselves into more than an arrogant Gallic saunter. Technically, they were on an entirely different boulevard – a point which Nicolas Anelka underlined in one moment of class, a swivel, an easy turn of speed and then a whimsical but perfectly accurate back pass, executed at pace. This was a prelude to utter devastation of the England defence, right-back François Clerc delivering a killing pass to Anelka. This left David James with a choice between bringing down the exquisitely gifted Frenchman or being sent inevitably in the wrong direction. He chose the first option, which extended his torment when Franck Ribéry, the most vital presence on the field, took the penalty with almost sadistic relish.

Sadism is perhaps always going to be on the agenda when you face opposition operating on an entirely different and superior level. There was a little English animation towards the end and both Stewart Downing and David Bentley produced some scampering along the flanks. However, it seemed unlikely to produce anything much more than a series of forlorn gestures. This was a night when Capello, if he had any doubts at all, got a better grasp of why he is being paid such spectacular wages. He doesn't so much have to make a team but renovate a culture and you can only guess at what he would have given to have the services of an Anelka or a Ribéry last night.

They were players of touch and drive, qualities which have for so long been draining away from the English team. Among other things, last night was a call for an ever sharper change in the priorities of the national game. All week the discussion was about the ceremonial conclusion to the career of a former captain who had three World Cups and two European Championships to make his run at history, and now yearned for his 100th cap.

Well, David Beckham has his century now and let's hope that might just provoke a slight shift in attention – away from sentimentality and back to the real business of playing competitive football against the best teams in the world. France regained that status in the last World Cup, and there were reminders almost every time they touched the ball. England, by comparison, never looked as though they could a find a way to move forward.

They have a huge tract of ground to cover. Last night they struggled over every yard. Capello faces the challenge of his life. England? Nothing less than a fight for their existence as a serious football nation.