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Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008

PREMIER REPORT

Capello masterful in England's victory over Croatia


LONDON — The impression is that if you told Fabio Capello he had just won a record lottery jackpot — or even had he discovered he had lost the winning ticket — his expression would not change.

Christopher Davies

As the England manager walked to the dressing room after the stunning 4-1 win over Croatia, any viewer who had just turned on the television would not have known the outcome from the ice-cool Italian's body language.

After each England goal the camera panned in on Capello, who allowed himself no more than a polite clap of his hands.

Win, lose or draw Capello doesn't do emotions.

What he has done, however, is to suddenly make England into a highly effective team that left just about every onlooker baffled.

Where on earth did the display in Zagreb come from?

There had been no hint of the Balkan eruption to come in a series of pedestrian friendlies and the labored 2-0 win away to Andorra the previous Saturday, which kick-started the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign.

Among the least likely chants by England fans in Maksimar Stadium was: "We want five."

It's all about doing it when it matters. A manager paid a reported £5 million a year is expected to make the right decisions, and Capello got them all spot-on as Croatia lost a competitive home game for the first time in 39 matches.

How right can a manager be?

Capello chose Theo Walcott ahead of David Beckham and the teenager began his England goal account with a hat trick he would not have dared dream about.

Capello picked Emile Heskey, a non-scoring striker, to lead the attack and the Wigan center-forward put in an unselfish performance of graft and grit.

Had England lost, Capello would have been subjected to the full range of vitriol from the press.

Now Fleet Street has a new hero after the best England result and display since the 5-1 mauling in Munich, when Germany was put to the sword.

Walcott, 19, became the youngest ever England player to score a hat trick.

Arsene Wenger brought the then 16-year-old Walcott to Arsenal from Southampton in January 2006 for an initial fee of £5 million, rising to a possible £12.5 million.

While delighted, Wenger urged caution, "what happened you have to consider to be an exception," he said. "Even for players of 25 or 26, to score three goals in an international is a one-off. But what is very good is that he has the confidence of Capello and he is playing at that level at 19."

Capello had admitted the team was happier playing away from Wembley because the fans' frustration was affecting the players' confidence.

When England plays Kazakhstan at Wembley next month it is the safest of bets that Capello and the team will receive the sort of ovation no one could have foreseen pre-Zagreb.

That's what a win can do.

Having made all the correct calls against Croatia, Capello will have to decide whether to stick with Frank Lampard or recall Steve Gerrard, who was unfit for Wednesday's game.

No one doubt the Fab Man will get it right again.

* * * * *

JET LAGGED and exhausted, David Beckham will return to club duty Saturday with the Los Angeles Galaxy — the worst team in Major League Soccer — away to the Kansas City Wizards.

Beckham's route from Croatia to Kansas via Los Angeles is almost 13,000 km and around 17 hours flying time — at the end of it the former England captain will once again be the superstar in a team of below-average journeymen.

In England and Spain, Beckham (a bit part player in the midweek win) played for the best clubs — Manchester United and Real Madrid. He was a serial winner in Europe, but in the United States the team is more like Lost Angeles.

Over the last two seasons the Galaxy have been beaten in 22 of 55 matches, though, mainly because of injury, Beckham has played only 25 games.

No MLS team has a worse 2008 record than the Galaxy, who have not won in a club-record 11 games, are bottom of their division, and their 26 points from six wins and nine draws is the worst return in the league.

Beckham has never played for a struggling team before. Throughout his career he has only been involved in challenging for major honors. His L.A. adventure pays him £3 million a year but despite playing in front of sellout crowds in the USA, Beckham is part of the league's bottom-rated side.

It's just as well there is no relegation in MLS, otherwise Becks would be in Division Two next year.

This is partly due to Beckham's super salary. Each MLS club has a salary cap of around £1.3 million and the Galaxy spent half of its on Beckham plus strikers Landon Donovan and Carlos Ruiz — the latter recently left L.A. for Toronto.

Beckham earns a basic salary of £3 million, but as the team's designated player only £215,000 counts toward the salary cap.

Donovan and Ruiz earned £405,000 between them, so three players account for almost half of the total salaries allowed for the Galaxy's 19 players. That means the other 16 players would average £42,500 each, and in football you tend to get what you pay for.

Whereas most MLS teams spread their salary cap more evenly among the team, the Galaxy are top heavy with expensive strikers.

The contradiction is that Beckham has given the Galaxy and the league a profile probably no other player could. Because of Beckham, the Galaxy sell out every home game while visiting clubs almost always record their biggest attendance when Los Angeles is in town.

But it's virtually impossible for any MLS side to be successful when it pays three players so much of its allocated salary cap.

The Galaxy are the league's leading goal scorers yet they also have easily the worst defense because they have little money to spend on reliable defenders.

Form the magic of the World Cup to the Wizards of Kansas City. After the pulse-raising excitement of England's stunning 4-1 success in Zagreb, Beckham must prepare himself for the alternate demands of Arrowhead Stadium.

* * * * *

IN HIS autobiography, Jamie Carragher bemoans the fact his brothers find it hard to get work in Liverpool "because we've made it too easy for foreigners to come here and take jobs."

Maybe Carragher would like to discuss this issue with Jose Reina, Andrew Dossena, Sami Hyypia, Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger, Fabiano Aurelio, Xabi

Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Lucas, Yossi Benayoun, Alvaro Arbeloa, Ryan

Babel, Dirk Kuyt and Fernando Torres.

The meeting could be chaired by Rafa Benitez.

Christopher Davies is the author of the recently released book "Behind The Back Page."


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