If there was any consolation for Fabio Capello last night upon hearing the news that David Beckham had snapped his Achilles tendon then it was this: at least it was not Wayne Rooney.
The loss of Beckham is a great pity for the England manager because the 34-year-old, in the words of the Capello camp, "gave England something different". The old legs might not have been as willing as they once were but he was still capable of delivering a telling cross when England needed it.
Beckham would have been on the plane to South Africa before last night, even if it required some serious re-jigging of the profile of the squad in order to accommodate him among the 23 for the World Cup. Instead of two players for every position, there was to be three right wingers including Beckham and utility players to make up the shortfall elsewhere. Now Capello does not have those worries.
The England manager brought Beckham on for the last of his 115 caps in the win over Belarus in the last World Cup qualifier in October. He had to withdraw from the friendly against Brazil in November because of commitments with the Los Angeles Galaxy and he was not summoned from the bench in this month's friendly against Egypt.
Beckham was not exactly an integral part of the Capello masterplan but he was an interesting option; a player who always offered a different option when to came to breaking down an opponent.
Now that Beckham is out, the spotlight falls upon Aaron Lennon, arguably Capello's first-choice right winger. Tottenham have been unable to solve the problem of Lennon's groin that has stopped him playing since 28 December. It is understood to be an issue with scar tissue in his groin injury. Harry Redknapp has said he has no idea when Lennon will be ready.
Given the choice, Capello would sooner have a fit Lennon than a fit Beckham. He would sooner have a fit Ashley Cole or the guarantee that Rio Ferdinand was not about to break down again than a fit Beckham. He would probably sooner not have had to sack John Terry as captain last month.
If he thinks about it, the England manager has plenty of reasons to feel that the fates are conspiring against him having got England to the World Cup finals with nine wins out of 10 in qualifying. But all these injuries and scandals have one silver lining: they are happening sufficiently early that Capello can plan for South Africa with them in mind.
When Beckham broke his the second metatarsal in his left foot playing against Deportivo La Coruna in the Champions League quarter-final before the 200World Cup finals it was already 10 April. When Rooney broke the fourth metatarsal bone in his right foot against Chelsea before the 2006 World Cup finals it was 29 April. This time England's path has been rocky but there is time for them to recover.
As one door closes, another opens and Adam Johnson, the Manchester City winger, is now surely under consideration for Capello's 30-man provisional squad to be named on 16 May. Not 23 until July, Johnson scored an inspired equaliser for City against Sunderland yesterday – some might say it was Beckham-esque – and he would also give Capello something different.
In Johnson's case it is the ability to play on both wings. He is left-footed but playing second fiddle to Stewart Downing when the pair were at Middlesbrough has meant that Johnson is accustomed to being the "inside-out" winger, playing on the opposite side to his strongest foot. He has never been capped by Capello but he was a regular in the under-21s under Stuart Pearce.
Beckham's injury also means that Theo Walcott has an opportunity to reclaim the right-wing spot, though he first has to win a place in the Arsenal team. James Milner is also a strong candidate to play on the right side in South Africa – he will probably be in the squad by virtue of his sheer versatility.
There may even be a chance for Milner's right-sided Aston Villa team-mate Ashley Young, a consistent Premier League performer but never particularly favoured by Capello. There are many options left open to Capello, he just cannot afford any further injuries or withdrawals from among his senior players.
The biggest blow will be to Beckham who, despite his fondness for being centre-stage where England are concerned, has shown remarkable willing to prolong his international career by flying back from Los Angeles. He is a huge favourite with the fans who had improbably come to regard him as something of a national treasure.
It will be a devastating blow for Beckham that he is not given the chance of a fourth crack at the World Cup. But in international football, things change very quickly and the door is open for someone to prove that finally, this England team can flourish without its most famous name.
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