The Nick Townsend column: To reign over Spain, Rooney can't be plain

Capello's bold claim that England can be world-beaters will only ring true if United striker attains true world-class status
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The Independent Online

Fabio Capello declared: "Always, I am an optimist," patting his chest like a restaurateur who has declared himself the creator of the most aromatic pasta sauce. The England coach is so sanguine, it transpired, that he insists his men could wallop Spain.

Actually, what he said was this when I asked him how far England were behind the European champions as they prepared to set out on a 14-month expedition to Johannesburg with the prelude of Wednesday night's home friendly with the Czech Republic: "Three months ago nobody spoke about Spain. Now they have the best team in the world. It's a miracle. They are a very good team but I think we have a different style and we can beat them. I am very confident in my team."

Capello was definitely in a mood to talk the talk, albeit in his slowly improving English, and still prompted by an interpreter. There was a conviction to his words, despite the fact that it's usually the kind of question the Italian tends to evade.

He knows all the perils of making himself a hostage to fortune with injudicious forecasts. Perhaps it's because Spain are not on the horizon, at least until the finals.

The England coach is clearly anxious that his side's absence from 2008 should not create a fault line of self-doubt among his players. As his predecessor, the man now attempting to resuscitate his career at FC Twente, Steve McClaren, discovered, there will be many hazards to overcome, not least Croatia away next month, beforethat destiny is assured.

Yet you just wonder what thoughts were really circulating within that football brain of his; what concerns are gestating. If, for a moment, we ignore the various midfield and defensive dilemmas he has to address – and though he claims to know his first XI, Owen Hargreaves, for one, will be absent from Wednesday night's contest due to injury – he is well aware that his strikers barely begin to compare with what Spain have to offer. Capello prefers to view it as a common problem, affecting all of England's principal rivals except Spain.

"At the moment, in the world, only Spain have a great striker in Torres," he argued. "Italy? So- so. Germany? So-so. Portugal? No. The French? What did you see in the Euros? Nothing. It is a problem now everywhere. Teams defend very well."

He could, of course, have offered Wayne Rooney as a significant part of England's solution. Except that Capello is presumably as aware as the rest of us that the Manchester United man appears to have discovered a plateau of performance which, according to such a judge as Pele, lies below the peak he attained at Euro 2004. Not only is the Scouser still prone to over-reaction, which makes him a liability, but he still has not truly established his role with club or country. Sir Alex Ferguson admitted recently that his playerhad sacrificed himself for the team, and added: "We need to define Wayne's role better."

Capello, though, views him as versatile. Asked whether he considered Rooney a main striker or second striker, the coach insisted: "He can be both." He added: "It's possible to play as a second striker and score goals. He played well in two [England] games and he didn't score, but I was very happy with the performance."

Nevertheless, questions still remain over who will play in tandem with him on Wednesday night. With Michael Owen still not fit, the likeliest contender is Jermain Defoe, who scored twice for England against Trinidad. Capello also has Peter Crouch in reserve. He said of him: "I am happy for Crouch because now he can play more games [after moving from Liverpool to Portsmouth]. If you play once a month it is not enough. This is a very important season for him."

Darren Bent is another contender. And Capello still apparently has regard for Dean Ashton, despite an inauspicious debut. "He was one of the best young players before he was injured. Last season he worked a lot. Now he is fit enough."

Yet however hard you attempt to convince yourself that there is potency about any of the combinations with Rooney, none are convincing. It is clear that Capello, who earlier had spoken at a "fans' forum" at the FA's Soho Square headquarters organised by the England team sponsors, Nationwide Building Society, will be demanding more from his midfielders and defenders. "More players have to score more goals, to get into goal-scoring positions," he said.

Capello is undaunted by the task ahead. "In my mind I know my first XI. The time for experimentation is over. This is the real thing," he insisted. "When I started, all the players were a bit scared. Their minds were closed after failing to qualify for Euro 2008. For the players it felt like an examination."

He added: "They have to play with the same spirit they play with their clubs. I'll try to transfer that. It's impossible to lose everything just because we didn't qualify for the Euro. In the last four friendly games, I saw a step forward with each game towards recovering the right mentality. The Czech game is important because I hope to get the answers I am looking for from the players."

Anyone for Olympic tennis? I'd rather see a German dentist

We have witnessed the elation, desperation, pain and tears expected from an Olympics, but it was perhaps inevitable that there should be some typical Andy Murray stroppiness during his first-round departure from the singles in Beijing on Monday.

Not that such thoughts were going through the mind of Sam Smith, the former British women's No 1 and BBC TV pundit. "I don't see grumpy from Murray. I see fire and brimstone." Fortunately,Smith's Radio 5 Live counterparts saw things more perceptively, enforcing the point that you are expected to behave rather differently in the Olympics than you are in a Grand Slam.

By inference, of course, the latter is the really serious stuff. Money, prestige, ranking, titles: they are what really matters. Who remembers the winners of tennis Olympic golds? The US Open is a rather more pressing engagement for a man who is ranked sixth in the world.

So one has to ask the question again: why is tennis included? Together with basketball (football is only for under-23s), it is arguably the only sport in which Olympic triumph comes second best. This is not purely an issue of money. Yes, some of the track- and-field stars are relatively high earners. But for them, the Games remain the ultimate goal over four years. That is surely the crux of the matter. The Olympics should only include those sports where competing for gold is the pinnacle of a performer's career, not seemingly an irritant in an already crowded schedule.

Too often we forget the background of most of these competitors. The non-sporting BBC Radio 5 anchors were astonished to learn that one of the gold-winning German eventing team was a "full-time" dentist, and that effectively he was an amateur. Though virtually all competitors have sponsors, and some may earn a living from their sports, as the British eventer William Fox-Pitt does, the rowers, cyclists and sailors et al compete purely for glory.

Did anyone notice Federer go out of the singles? His gold in the doubles scarcely set the Games alight. The feats we await in track and field, and have been rewarded with in swimming and others are more than enough to sustain the Games. They don't require those whose minds, at least, are likely to be elsewhere.

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