As Fabio Capello was reminded last night of the great players he once had under his command in the great all-conquering Milan team of 20 years ago, Steven Gerrard, sitting three feet to his manager's right, muttered loudly enough to be heard – "he's still got them".
Gerrard did not mean that literally when the names of Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini were mentioned; rather, he could not help making the point that Capello still has some big names and some big reputations at his disposal. The England captain does not make a habit of interrupting his manager but the words were out of his mouth before he had a chance to reflect.
The belief still exists in this England team, even after two draws at this World Cup – the second of which, against Algeria on Friday, did as much as any game in the last two-and-a-half years to knock the wind from the sails of Capello's regime. The team which faces Slovenia tonight includes plenty of big-name players who find it hard to comprehend their current situation.
It has taken Gerrard ten years, two auditions under two managers and an injury to Rio Ferdinand to land the England captaincy. Now that he has it, all he faces are the same old questions about letting the country down and why it is that this team seems so consumed by fear. He answered them as best he could yesterday, although even he cannot say with certainty what kind of England team will emerge tonight.
Gerrard will still be in the England tracksuit come August and the friendly against Hungary when the whole cycle begins again, no matter what happens tonight. As for Capello – who knows? He began this month in love with his life in London and was hailed by the new Prime Minister as the most important man in the country bar none – for as long as the World Cup lasted. Two games on and everything changes.
Capello did not want to answer the question about whether he would still be England manager at the end of the game tonight, whatever the result, but he was prepared to admit that this game could affect the reputation he has built in the game. It is one that has been meticulously crafted at four of the biggest clubs in Europe over almost 30 years and it will endure whatever happens. But it will not escape unscathed if England are eliminated tonight.
"Yes, [my reputation is at stake], my target, as you know, was to get to the final," he said. "I don't know ... we have not had good results. We agree together that we did a good job in qualification. Now we're not in a good moment, but [against Slovenia] we will be fit. I think. Definitely. We are a team, like a group, and not individual. My reputation is not important. The group and the team are important."
In the end, the success and failure of England teams – usually the failure – always come back to the manager. This England team is different because rarely has a manager so dominated. Sven Goran Eriksson was overshadowed by David Beckham; so too Steve McClaren to an extent, but much more than those two, this is Capello's England. It was he who oversaw its rebirth in qualification and, equally, it is he who now grapples with its failings.
In the last few days, he has asserted himself over this team again, slapping down John Terry's one-man rebellion and speaking individually with Wayne Rooney. This afternoon, he will make his final decisions on the team. Jermain Defoe is as close to a certain starter as you can ever be with Capello and James Milner is the favourite to start on the right, although there is still an outside possibility Joe Cole will get the job.
At least Capello is facing his England crisis with the strength to pick the team he believes is the right one. By this time at the last World Cup, Eriksson had already been turned down by Beckham when he was sounded out about playing right-back in the last-16 game against Ecuador. McClaren was overwhelmed by more injuries than Capello has ever had to deal with in his final defeat to Croatia in November 2007.
Yet, like Eriksson and McClaren, Capello is still shuffling the pack in what could prove his last game in this tournament – and possibly as England manager. He believes Defoe, with 11 goals in 41 caps and a strike-rate of one every 138 minutes on the pitch, is the answer. It has taken Emile Heskey two games to play himself out of contention. With 21 goals in 40 caps and a strike-rate of one every 100 minutes, Peter Crouch must wonder what he has to do.
Capello may yet be right about Defoe and the manager deserves the benefit of the doubt, but it is patently obvious he has not yet struck upon a team he is certain about. We used to say the same about Eriksson and he got nothing but derision for it.
It was not the draw with the United States that depressed Capello – increasingly, that looks a decent result. What worried him was what happened on Friday. "I can see that sometimes we improve, sometimes we aren't at the high level that I want," he said. "At this moment, we're down from the level that they know, I know, we all know. But I think [against Slovenia] we'll be fit to fight."
We know England are fit and well-organised; what is not certain is how they will respond to "the fear". The nagging pressure that in recent days Capello has identified as making their legs leaden and their touch heavy. "That is the key, to try and live without fear," Gerrard said. "You're playing for England and you have massive support. It doesn't help to go on to the pitch and play with that fear."
But it is there, none the less. And if we reach 70 minutes today, with the game still goalless and the anxiety rising, there will be little Capello can do but hope this team can summon something of all the great sides he has managed in the past.
What england must do
* England need to beat Slovenia this afternoon to ensure a place in the second round. If the United States beat Algeria at the same time, then whoever wins by the biggest margin will take top spot and face the runners-up of Group D.
A draw will only be enough for England if they have a high-scoring draw and the US-Algeria game is a low-scoring draw (eg England draw 3-3 and US 0-0). Should England draw 2-2 and the US game ends goalless, lots will be drawn to determine who qualifies as runners-up.
Defeat would mean elimination.
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