The Capello conundrums: scores yet to be settled
With just two friendlies left until England fly to South Africa, the manager must soon name his final squad. Sam Wallace looks at the decisions that lie ahead
Friday 05 March 2010
It was late on Wednesday night at Wembley stadium and Fabio Capello was still abuzz with the adrenalin of England's victory when he was asked if he was close to finalising his squad for the World Cup finals. "It is too early," he said before he corrected himself. "I have 30 players in my head. I have the 30 players."
The 30 players are those who will be named in the provisional squad that will train in Austria in late May and play friendlies against Mexico and Japan in preparation for South Africa. As for the 23 players who will board the British Airways flight to Johannesburg on 3 June, there are still many issues to be resolved – even allowing for injuries.
Some positions are better served than others. Questions remain over whether Ashley Cole will be fit in time. But what is not in doubt is that the quality of England's squad runs sufficiently deep that some big names from English football will be left behind.
What now for Joe Cole?
When the Capello regime stuttered into life in September 2008, it was thanks to Cole that England beat Andorra 2-0 in their first World Cup qualifier. Cole came off the bench, scored twice in the second half and suddenly England were up and running. The previous month he had saved Capello with an equaliser against the Czech Republic as England struggled to a 2-2 draw at Wembley.
Now 18 months on and one cruciate ligament injury later, Cole has three months to win his place back in the squad. He has 53 caps and is a unique kind of player. However, Capello is wedded to a style of playing that has Steven Gerrard drifting in from the left side. What could save Cole is that Capello needs some back-up on that wing.
Out of contract at Chelsea in the summer, Cole has not recaptured his club form. Even so, he must look at the likes of Theo Walcott and wonder how he gets special dispensation.
Why the infatuation with Walcott?
The England manager loves him. Even after another indifferent Walcott performance – a lot of knocking the ball past the full-back and chasing after it – Capello was defending his Zagreb hat-trick hero.
Walcott has started only three games this calendar year for Arsenal. Capello said: "When you don't play a lot of games and you have the chance to start a game you try to do impossible things. But you have to play with confidence like we saw with certain important players.
"Theo is one of the faster players we have. I remember the performance of Theo when he was fit, before he was injured. He has time to recover that form."
Which three from his four right-sided players will Capello take?
Although Capello hinted that he could take all of his four right-sided players to South Africa – Walcott, Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright-Phillips and David Beckham – it is inconceivable they will all make the cut. Beckham looks to have won a place because he offers something different to the other three. After that, Walcott is another favourite, leaving Wright-Phillips and Lennon to contest the final place.
"Shaun Wright-Phillips can play on the left," said Capello on Wednesday night, although many would disagree. Despite his game-changing performance against Egypt, Wright-Phillips looks the most vulnerable of the three providing Lennon is fit. Which is by no means guaranteed.
If Joe Cole comes back into contention then that virtually rules out the chances of Stewart Downing or Wright-Phillips going to South Africa. Michael Carrick's impressive second-half performance on Wednesday should be enough to get the Manchester United man a seat on the plane.
Pace or trickery?
As it stands, tricksters Downing and Ashley Young look destined to be left behind. Young has played six times under Capello (only one of them a start) but he does not seem to be the England manager's type. He has started 34 games this season for Aston Villa compared to Walcott's seven starts for Arsenal.
Has David James finally been knocked off top spot?
Before England played Ukraine away in October, Capello said he already knew his first-choice goalkeeper. The assumption was that it was David James, simply because no one else had anything like his experience. Now the received wisdom is that Capello was talking about Ben Foster.
Asked on Wednesday night if he had changed his mind since then, Capello replied with an embarrassed "Perhaps". He said: "I know the value of James. [Robert] Green needs to play more games – if you remember the last game he played, in Ukraine, he only played for 10 minutes or so [as he was sent off]. He has to play more games for this reason. He is a good goalkeeper."
Green has started seven of the last nine games. Does Capello now know his World Cup No 1? "It is too early".
What more must Crouch do to start games?
One of Capello's more unusual observations about Wednesday's opposition was that Egypt's defenders were not particularly tall. For some that might be an extra reason to play Peter Crouch. The England manager saw it as an opportunity to do something different. But he admitted he had changed a lot of his assumptions about Crouch.
"Peter Crouch has improved a lot," Capello said. "Also, the style of the English teams like Tottenham has changed. They do not only play long ball. When we started, it was always long balls up to Crouch. But now they play football, always try to pass the ball, to play with a maximum of one or two touches. That is an improvement and I can see it is now not easy to win the ball back off Crouch."
How has James Milner become such a favourite?
He only has seven caps but tellingly they have been won in each of the last seven games that England have played. This talented, dedicated young footballer is undoubtedly on the plane to South Africa and he deserves it.
Milner is a manager's dream: skilful, quick, capable of making an impact when he comes on as a substitute and, most importantly, he can play anywhere across the midfield and in both full-back positions.
Will it be Baines, or even Bridge, on the plane?
Unless Capello is able to change Wayne Bridge's mind, England have a new understudy left-back. "I am happy with the performance of Baines," Capello said. "I put him in the first XI and he showed the confidence and the personality I wanted."
Is Capello still on top?
Nine wins in qualification. A second-half comeback against the African champions. £6m a year. We just have to trust Capello, right?
How are England's rivals faring? Argentina
Diego Maradona, suddenly, unexpectedly, is on a roll. He has overseen six wins out of seven, beginning with the two victories that rescued Argentina's faltering qualification campaign and culminating in Wednesday's 1-0 victory against Germany in Munich. Even the defeat, 2-1 in Madrid, is no disgrace – everyone loses to Spain.
Perhaps most surprising in the defeat of Germany was Argentina's tactical intelligence, stifling their opponents by pressing then picking them apart with the passing of Juan Sebastian Veron and pace of Angel Di Maria.
Maradona, who endured fierce criticism after such results as a 6-1 defeat in Bolivia and a 3-1 reverse at home to Brazil, was understandably jubilant. "We have a team who can become world champions for the first time in 24 years," said the key figure in their 1986 triumph. "We got it wrong against Brazil, Ecuador and in La Paz, but we've always had the players."
Veron, 35 next week, has flourished since taking over as playmaker following Maradona's fall-out with Juan Roman Riquelme and has established a well-balanced midfield partnership with Javier Mascherano. The Benfica starlet Di Maria provides penetration on the flank and Gonzalo Higuain, initially ignored by Maradona, a cutting edge in attack. There is the incomparable Lionel Messi plus, on the bench in Munich, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Diego Milito.
But if Maradona has an abundance in attack the back four is weak, especially out wide. After seven keepers, Maradona appears to have settled on AZ Alkmaar's Sergio Romero who won his fifth cap on Wednesday.
World Ranking 9
World Cup Group B (with Greece, Nigeria, South Korea)
When might they meet England? QF
Odds 9/1 (William Hill)
Pedigree Winners 1978, 1986
Last five results Uruguay W 1-0 (a), Spain L 2-1 (a), Costa Rica W 3-2 (h), Jamaica W 2-1 (h), Germany W 1-0 (a)
Upcoming fixtures Canada (h, 24 May), Israel (h, 29 May)
Fans Noted for raucous noise and a love of all things glitter and tickertape.
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