Captaincy saga obscures real issue of Capello injury epidemic
The England coach has been forced to wing it with youth and embrace an untested pairing in Lescott and Ferdinand
In dressing room four at Wembley yesterday, where Fabio Capello held his press briefing, there was an unfamiliar face on a bench at the back. She turned out to be Capello's English teacher who was there to witness her pupil putting his language skills to the test in a more adversarial context.
Like some of his players, Capello's English has not always done him justice in the heat of battle. It is his uncertain grip of meaning and nuance which meant yesterday he found himself blamed for raising Steven Gerrard's hopes of becoming the captain when he had, in fact, intended all along to give the job back to Rio Ferdinand.
Capello has been given plenty of chances to outline his "rules" since Ferdinand's injury on 4 June. He dropped hints after the win over Switzerland last month, in which Gerrard captained the team for the seventh successive game, that he might be reconsidering the captaincy and in delaying the decision he gave yesterday's announcement a touch of the drama it did not really warrant.
It turned out that Capello was simply waiting for Ferdinand to prove his fitness again before giving him the job back for tonight's Euro 2012 qualifier against Montenegro. No promises were ever made to Gerrard and, however deflated he might feel at Capello's decision, he will just have to get on with it.
Having done his best as captain in South Africa, Gerrard has been a key figure for England since they returned from the World Cup finals. His two goals against Hungary in the August friendly probably did much to keep Capello in a job when he was at his lowest point. But that does not entitle Gerrard to the captaincy. It is the manager's decision and any manager who feels himself in a player's debt is not thinking straight.
In the post-South Africa despair, Gerrard has acquitted himself well in the absence of the likes of Frank Lampard and latterly John Terry. He is a likeable character and would have been a popular choice to captain England but it is not Capello's job to make popular choices. It is his job to make the right choice for the team and in line with what he described yesterday as his "rules".
Unfortunately, Capello's "rules" can be opaque at the best of times, usually because the subtle indicators that he would be able to convey to an Italian audience are nowhere near as clear as they are in his third language – time coaching Real Madrid in Spain making Spanish his second one. It was probably for this reason that Terry once laboured under the misapprehension that he could one day be captain again after he was sacked in February. It is more work for Capello's English teacher.
"I spoke with him [Gerrard] and thanked him for everything, and he understood," Capello said. "I told him he's a fantastic captain and tomorrow he will play much better than in the other games, at the top. I think he's a really good player, a really good man, and he will be really important for us in every moment. For this reason, I think he will play the same as against Hungary every game. The performance will be the same."
At the age of 30, Gerrard is long past the days when he might allow a decision like this to affect his thinking. He will probably never be captain of England now – although it is a job commensurate with his status in the English game – but there are plenty of good footballers who have never captained their country. The notion that his performance might suffer because of a perceived slight can only be regarded as an insult to Gerrard's professionalism.
Rather, the noise from the England captaincy issue has obscured the bigger issue for Capello, which is that his plans have been disrupted by injury again. He has probably picked his team three times already this week and had to change it as first Phil Jagielka, then Terry and yesterday Darren Bent pulled out of the squad. There has been precious little consistency in the three games since the World Cup finals because key players just keep getting injured.
Capello is well aware that even after two wins in his first two Euro 2012 qualifiers, the boos and the recriminations for the disappointment of South Africa are just one bad performance away. He also knows that the Football Association wants an English manager for the job next time. And that the mood for that will be sooner rather than later if an awkward Montenegro team get anything out of tonight's game.
With Bent now injured, his place goes to Peter Crouch, who would be more entitled than even Gerrard to feel mistreated by Capello. Crouch has scored 21 goals for England, more than Jermain Defoe and Bent put together, but still has to wait in line behind them. Capello has never really appeared to rate Crouch and seems to pick him on the basis of his record. Crouch, all but ignored during the World Cup, just gets on with it.
The issues that will occupy Capello this morning as he prepares his team to face a Montenegro side that have won all three of their qualifiers so far, are straightforward. He will be concerned about whether Ferdinand and Joleon Lescott will form an effective partnership in central defence. This is the fifth consecutive game in which Capello has been forced by injuries to certain players to select a different defensive partnership.
He will be anxious that the international inexperience of Ashley Young and Adam Johnson might be something of a risk. And, as ever, he will have no idea what kind of performance Rooney will contribute tonight. No one has been able to predict that over the last month. "I monitored him [Rooney] during the training and he trained perfectly," Capello said. "He's focused on the game. He's in a good moment, better than he was when we played against Switzerland."
The only time Capello really broke into a smile yesterday and spoke with the kind of fluency that will have impressed his English teacher was when he discussed his friendship with the Montenegro Football Federation president, Dejan Savicevic, whom he managed at Milan. Capello's job has, as with his predecessors, become one of constant improvisation. At least he can consider the matter of the captaincy closed.
Post-World Cup pull-outs
v Hungary, 11 August
D Bent, R Ferdinand and B Foster (all back), M Carrick (ankle), L King (knee).
v Bulgaria, 3 September
R Green (hip), D Stockdale (ankle), J Terry (hamstring), R Ferdinand, P Crouch (both back), F Lampard (groin), B Zamora (thigh).
v Switzerland, 7 September
R Green (hip), D Stockdale (ankle), M Dawson (knee), R Ferdinand (back), J Terry (hamstring), F Lampard (groin), B Zamora (thigh).
v Montenegro, tonight
P Jagielka (hamstring), J Terry (back), M Dawson (knee), K Gibbs (calf), F Lampard (groin), A Lennon (back), T Walcott (ankle), G Agbonlahor, D Bent (both groin), B Zamora (leg), J Defoe (ankle).
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