When Fabio Capello was asked in the frantic aftermath of victory over Slovenia whether Jermain Defoe was certain to start against Germany on Sunday, he gave one of those frazzled answers that occasionally divulge more than the old poker-face would normally chose to give away.
"It depends on which defender plays on the other side," Capello said, thus introducing some doubt into the mind of Defoe, very much the man of the moment for England, when it comes to Sunday's team selection. That is, of course, the prerogative of every smart international manager from Sir Alf Ramsey onwards who would famously bid Geoff Hurst farewell after games with the warning he would only see him again "if selected".
"If selected" is the proviso that Defoe has had to stick to most of his career thus far, not least after he was left out in the cold by Sven Goran Eriksson for the 2006 World Cup finals squad to make room for a 17-year-old Theo Walcott. When Defoe said yesterday that he had received a deluge of text messages after scoring the winner against Slovenia someone asked – joking – if one of them was from Eriksson. "I've changed my number," said Defoe, blankly.
The indications from the Capello camp is that Defoe will keep his place on Sunday, primarily because the DVDs and scouting reports on Germany which Capello started looking through last night have demonstrated that their centre-backs, Per Mertesacker and Arne Friedrich, are susceptible to Defoe's pace. That is the early take on Capello's intentions but he remains a manager who retains the right to chance his mind.
This week he let Defoe know early that he was playing when they bumped into one another in the gym at England's Royal Bafokeng base on Tuesday morning. "The manager is always in there every morning doing his weights and he asked me if I was ready to play," Defoe said. "I just said 'Yes'. I have felt really sharp in training and worked hard. I trained on my day off to make sure I was ready."
Defoe's was a happy story yesterday – the calls from family and the pre-match pep talk from his formidable mother, Sandra, who has overseen her son's professional career. Defoe is one of those characters who, whether you like him or not, is hard to faze. He blithely dismissed 44 years of bitter rivalry between Germany and England as "another time". Millions of Englishmen will approach Sunday consumed by nerves. Defoe will not be one of them.
If only life looked so rosy for the rest of England's strikers. Wayne Rooney has still not regained his form although the kick he took to his right ankle is not thought to be sufficiently serious. Emile Heskey has been dropped two games in. And for reasons best-known to himself, Capello has chosen to ignore completely the claims of Peter Crouch who did not even merit a substitute's appearance on Wednesday.
The combination of Defoe and Rooney is a new departure for Capello, especially as the success of Rooney in qualifying was predicated on that gloriously simple premise from the Italian that he wanted his famous No 10 "close to the goal". Closer to the goal, Rooney scored nine goals in 10 qualifying matches. Now he has a strike partner who wrote the book on hanging around the penalty area to the exclusion of doing anything else.
Defoe's goalscoring pattern was generously described by someone yesterday as "coming in clusters". As far as international career has gone, there were two years between his first England goal, a crucial one in a World Cup qualifier against Poland in September 2004 and his next against Andorra in a Euro 2008 qualifier. His next was scored almost another two years on in the friendly against Trinidad & Tobago in June 2008, although in his defence he has had only 14 starts in his 42 caps.
The argument for Heskey's inclusion was that he gets more out of Rooney. It is hard to see how that stacks up with Defoe. The man from Tottenham Hotspur is the ultimate one-man band. He shoots on sight and as for passing to a strike partner – it is very much the option of last resort.
Even Defoe was prepared to admit that when he played alongside Crouch "it looks more natural because I play with him at the club and train with him every day". He added: "But I thought it worked well with Wayne, with the movement. If he drops in I go long [nearer the opponents' goal] and if I drop in he goes long. We switch it around in the box – these are things that we have done in training and it is really good that now we have actually done them in a game."
As for Rooney, there was an insight from a forward who knows what it is like to slip in and out of form. "I've played in games where you don't feel sharp, your legs are heavy but youscore two goals," Defoe said. "I get people telling me 'You were unbelievable today'. And I say 'No, I wasn't'. Sometimes that's the way it happens.
"Sometimes you play great games but don't score. I was saying to Shaun [Wright-Phillips] the thing about Wayne is no matter even if things aren't going right he always works hard and tries to make things happen. That is brilliant – all the top players have got that. And I am sure if he keeps doing that he will definitely get you a goal."
There was no doubt that a little bit of the confidence that was running through Defoe's veins after Wednesday's game would benefit Rooney, not to mention Heskey and Crouch, too. It still feels as if Capello came with a plan to this World Cup – two small men, two big men, picking one from each category – and has adjusted it rapidly after England's first two group games.
It has worked in Defoe's favour and pretty soon he will no longer have to trot out the story of 2006 when Eriksson left him hanging. "One of the boys said [in 2006] I should talk to the manager and tell him I can bring something to the team," Defoe said. "I didn't." The other three forwards in Capello's squad will just have to hope that they do not go home from South Africa with a similar feeling of regret.
'Pick a spot and do not change your mind': England's official advice on taking penalties
We can only hope that Germany have not stolen the hotel notepaper this time. Since their defeat of Argentina in a penalty shoot-out in the World Cup quarter-final four years ago, we have learnt that Jens Lehmann stood in goal in Berlin's Olympiastadion that afternoon with a sheet of it stuffed down his sock. Carrying the livery of Schlosshotel Grunewald it contained the list compiled by national goalkeeping trainer Andreas Kopke detailing which way seven of the likely Argentine penalty takers might put the ball.
Regrettably for Lehmann, five of the seven did not stick to Kopke's plan – and though Maxi Rodriguez kept to the script, his left-foot shot zeroed straight into the left-hand corner. Robert Ayala's long run-up ended with Lehmann diving the right way. And though Lehmann couldn't find Esteban Cambiasso on his crib sheet, the delay while he scoured the list planted the necessary seed of doubt and Germany maintained their record of never missing in a shoot-out.
If that level of detail were not enough to contend with, England have three men in their ranks – Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher – who bear the scars of missing in their own shootout in Gelsenkirchen against Portugal four years back. Though England have been practising kicks since they arrived for their pre-tournament altitude training in Irdning over a month ago, Gerrard, who carries the troubles of the world on his shoulders at the best of times, articulated the difference between training and a World Cup knock-out game.
"When you practise penalties in training you pick a ball up and shoot within a few seconds," Gerrard said. "But in the World Cup... what is it, a 30-second walk from the half-way line when you've got millions and millions of viewers back home wanting you to score? You can't prepare for that."
The neurotics will be worried to know that two of the three players with a 100 per cent success rate in the only penalty shoot-out practice actually witnessed in Irdning were Adam Johnson – who did not make the squad – and Shaun Wright-Phillips – whose chances of being on the pitch at full time depend on him coming off the bench. Then there's the worry of Lampard having also missed his last two – in the FA Cup final and in the warm-up game against Japan in Graz.
The advice of Capello's goalkeeping coach Franco Tancredi is "make your mind up". Gerrard said: "The manager is on to the penalty takers to make sure we're doing it properly in training and not messing around. He wants us to do in training what we do in a game: Pick a spot and not change your mind."
Jermain Defoe, whose recent penalty record is a dubious six out of 11, revealed yesterday that David James has played an inimitable part in the preparation, when training wraps up with penalty practice. "The manager gets the goalkeepers in and you've got Jamo (David James) there standing and screaming 'Come on, are you boys up for it?'"
But unlike some countries, England's preparations do not involve walking from the half-way line to take a kick. "All the lads gather round though and you do feel the pressure because you've got them all there," Defoe said. "If you miss you are going to get a little bit of banter."
Defoe missed two successive kicks before converting his last, in the 2-1 win over Chelsea at White Hart Lane which helped Spurs into the Champions League.
The key to penalty success is psychological, though – "You've got to be confident, playing at this level is all in the mind," as Defoe declared. Germany certainly have belief. The German defender Per Mertesacker declared yesterday that his nation would prevail if it came to spot-kicks.
"I'm sure we would have the edge if it went that far – 1990 and 1996 were great moments for the Germans and obviously that is in our minds now," Mertesacker said. Gerrard has "got a feeling we might have to go to penalties at some point." Better not on Sunday.
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