Hint of farce but Capello is sure England have moved on
Manager hopes a win against Swiss today will erase memory of World Cup debacle
Today is a year to the day that, late on in England's first training session in South Africa, Rio Ferdinand challenged Emile Heskey and injured his left knee so badly that by the evening the England captain knew that he was out of the World Cup finals.
From that point it went downhill quicker than a boulder off Table Mountain which is why, 365 days on, the whole sorry experience still hangs over Fabio Capello and the England team.
Nevertheless, they will play today in front of a Wembley stadium at full capacity for a Euro 2012 qualifier against a Switzerland side with no box-office names, at the end of a long domestic season. None of which seems to have diminished the English public's appetite for watching their team whose progress in qualifying has been steady at best and has included a draw at home with Montenegro, a nation with a smaller population than Leeds.
There are new players in this team to a year ago, and a new 4-3-3 formation. There are lots of promises about how it will be different next year. John Terry even said yesterday that England had "turned the corner" after last summer's dismal World Cup. There is, as ever, plenty of upbeat talk about lessons being learned from last summer and a conviction that it will be different next time.
But what England require more than anything is the kind of performance that gives some substance to the familiar old argument that the team just requires fine-tuning to be a serious force at Euro 2012 next summer. Asked yesterday about his changed England team, Capello declined to say it was better. "It's different," he said. "We've got probably more imagination. Some players have improved. Some players."
Providing Capello's team qualifies then this time next year they will be in Poland four days away from the start of the tournament that will be the last for the Italian manager.
Yesterday, accompanied by his interpreter and his English teacher, the England manager's grasp of his adopted tongue was, to put it politely, imperfect but it is probably too late now to expect it to improve dramatically.
Win today and he goes into the summer arguably just two more wins away from qualification because if England beat Bulgaria and Wales in September then they should qualify as the best second-placed team even if they lose to Montenegro in Podgorica come 7 October. They are reasonably well-set for qualification. But the spark that tells us this team is capable of more? That is harder to divine.
There is still the faint element of farce about this England team that is compounded by a manager who is not always capable of picking up the nuances of the English language. David Stockdale, the Fulham reserve team goalkeeper, was married yesterday – an arrangement which precluded him from being involved in the squad. Capello seemed unconcerned about his player's lack of foresight. "His wife may have decided, not him," he joked.
As for Ben Foster, the Birmingham City goalkeeper who took indefinite leave from international football last month, Capello revealed yesterday that Foster has done so in order to recover from a finger injury.
"He [Foster] played four months, and stayed with us in the last game in Wales, but said: 'Please, at the end of the season I need to have an operation'." Capello said. "I hope he comes back. I'm happy with these keepers."
When Foster comes back, he was unable to say. Just as it was unclear whether it was Arsène Wenger's powers of persuasion that convinced him that Jack Wilshere would be better served by not going to the Under-21s European championships this month or his own decision. Capello has finally smoothed things over with Rio Ferdinand over the captaincy issue, although it is 12 weeks since it first emerged that he was replacing him with Terry.
Another solid performance today, like those against Denmark and Wales (less so Ghana), and Capello can slip quietly away for the summer. But if you were looking yesterday for signs that this is a man fully in charge of his brief then once again the small details around this England team – about which he is questioned only once every two to three months – seem to elude him.
The most insightful part of Capello's briefing yesterday was his insistence that next year the players have at least 10 days' rest between the end of the season and the start of their Euro 2012 preparations. "Now [after a brief break for all but Ferdinand], during training, they have started to train, they were like children, wanting to play," he said.
"They were really happy. This is really, really important, them being so happy. I learned a lot from the World Cup. That was a different moment and the altitude was a big problem." There is no Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard in the team today and it will be interesting to see how the latter fits in when he finally returns from injury.
Scott Parker and Wilshere now look like the first two names in the three in midfield with Gerrard probably chosen ahead of Frank Lampard in the event of them both being fit.
In attack, Peter Crouch and Bobby Zamora are both fit but will not take precedence over the in-form Darren Bent who will start with Theo Walcott and Ashley Young on the wings. There is an outside chance that Capello could spring a surprise and that James Milner could be in line to start, which may be at the expense of Lampard.
Having been wedded to 4-4-2 at the World Cup last summer, Capello is now a firm convert to 4-3-3. How does he assess England one year on from South Africa? "The position, I think, a lot of young players are in the squad. Players have improved a lot. I'm happy with the performance of the team. But, the qualification is good but the most important thing is to win trophies, not to play all the games. We played really well in the qualification, but we didn't play well in South Africa."
Capello knows it is a long way back from South Africa for his team and his reputation and also that, however well it goes at Euro 2012 next summer, the chances of beating Spain – should England progress – are slim.
He has his way of doing things, but he feels he has made concessions in some areas to the English temperament. And like most of us he does not seem sure what kind of England team will turn up in Poland – qualification permitting – this time next year.
Home nations' results so far
England 4-0 Bulgaria;
Montenegro 1-0 Wales;
Switzerland 1-3 England;
Wales 0-1 Bulgaria;
England 0-0 Mont'gro;
Swit'land 4-1 Wales;
Wales 0-2 England.
Home nations' remaining fixtures
Today: England v Swit'land;
2 Sept: Bulgaria v England, Wales v Mont'gro;
6 Sept: England v Wales;
7 Oct: Mont'gro v England, Wales v Switzerland;
11 Oct: Bulgaria v Wales.
Previous Meetings: From Basle Trouble to Rooney Double
England have faced Switzerland 21 times, with their first meeting coming in 1933. England have won 14, drawn four and lost three of the fixtures. Here are three of the more memorable encounters:
Switzerland 2-1 England
30 May 1981, World Cup Qualifier
Crowd trouble marred the defeat as England went 2-0 down in the first half in Basle thanks to goals from Alfred Scheiwiler and Claudio Sulser. Terry McDermott's 54th-minute goal was not enough to salvage a point.
England 1-1 Switzerland
8 June 1996, Euro 96 Group stage
The hosts were held to a draw at Wembley in the first game of Euro '96. Alan Shearer scored his first England goal in 12 games but Kubilay Turkyilmaz equalised with a penalty after Stuart Pearce handled.
England 3-0 Switzerland
17th June 2004, Euro 2004 Group stage
Wayne Rooney, scored twice making him, at the age of 18, the youngest player to score in a European Championship. Steven Gerrard added the third. Bernt Haas was sent off for the Swiss.
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