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Saturday, Oct. 18, 2008

PREMIER REPORT

Full steam ahead for England as Capello pushes all the right buttons


LONDON — For £6 million a year success should be almost guaranteed, but football does not always work like that. However, at the moment Fabio Capello's salary is looking a bargain because on Planet Football managers and players can earn vastly inflated salaries as long as the team is winning.

Christopher Davies

Capello's England is not just winning. It is making history, playing well, scoring goals and has not so much one foot but nine toes in the 2010 World Cup finals.

These are happy days for the national team.

The Italian asked to be judged on competitive games, not on the earlier friendlies when results and displays gave little indication of what was to come when the real thing began.

The 3-1 win in Belarus meant England had won its opening four World Cup qualifying ties for the first time and even those who like to fly the flag of St. George have stopped voicing their view that we should have an English manager.

We have a winning manager and that's all that really matters.

Apart from the routine 2-0 win in Andorra, England has won 4-1 in Croatia and thumped Kazakhstan 5-1 at Wembley before Wednesday's 3-1 win in Belarus.

Twelve points, 14 goals scored, three conceded.

Would you like a pay rise signor Capello?

He took over a shell-shocked squad which had failed to qualify for Euro 2008, with some players giving the impression they would rather visit the dentist than pull on the white jersey.

In Wayne Rooney, England had a forward of undoubted talent, but for whatever reason the Manchester United striker had scored only two competitive goals in four years.

Capello's team is basically the same as Steve McClaren's, but in many ways it is entirely different.

David Beckham has made way for Theo Walcott on the right-wing and Emile Heskey has replaced Michael Owen as the spearhead in attack, but the main change is in attitude rather than personnel.

We no longer shake our heads and ask why England internationals fail to reproduce their club form for their country. If heads are still shaking, it is to wonder how England failed to make it to Euro 2008.

Playing for England is now serious business. No more WAGs (wives and girlfriends) in tow. Capello wants to win matches not popularity polls.

It is difficult to argue with such priorities, but the Italian is managing to succeed on both counts.

AC Milan and Holland legend Clarence Seedorf believes England can look forward to having "a great World Cup" with Capello in charge. Seedorf played under Capello at Real Madrid and the Dutch midfielder has noticed a significant improvement in England thanks to his former coach.

Seedorf said: "Capello brings experience, he creates a good spirit and a winning mentality. He has a way of achieving that. It can be in a good way or a bad way, he doesn't care if he's liked or not.

"What he does is to focus on the result and I can already see some changes in the way England are performing. They are much more of a team now. England have the players to compete with the best in the world but they have to prove this.

"They are improving, playing good football and scoring a lot of goals, so there's hope. With a coach like Capello, England can have a lot of hope for a great World Cup."

Under Sven-Goran Eriksson England qualified for major finals doing what it needed to do but no more. Eriksson's England would never have thumped Croatia 4-1 in its own backyard. One-one would have been the best hope with a sneaky win at Wembley.

Capello was brave enough to start Walcott in Zagreb and the Arsenal youngster repaid this faith with a hat trick. While Heskey is still a non-scoring striker, no one minds.

Many of Owen's goals came as a result of Heskey's unselfish, unseen work and Rooney is benefiting similarly from the Wigan striker's presence.

Five goals in the last three England games is more like what we expect of Rooney, who is almost a veteran at 22. Rooney, more than anyone, has responded to Capello's management, becoming both a maker and taker of goals.

Capello has yet to solve the problem of how to play Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard together in midfield but if anyone can, Fabio can.

With Joe Cole injured, Gerrard played on the left in Minsk, not his favorite position but he scored the opening goal, the second in three games he has started in that role. Maybe the Lampard problem has almost been solved.

With Liverpool, where he is captain fantastic, the main man and the heartbeat of the side, Gerrard is idolized yet with England it's different. The superman uniform is discarded, with uncertainly and self-criticism creeping in.

His post-match interview in Belarus was a master class in replying to questions without really giving any answers — it was stock football speak, clicheville.

"I was pleased for Steven," said Capello. "Perhaps he was a little over-critical of himself. You can't always be superman every game you play. He's his own worst critic."

Belarus was a decent side and played some good passing football.

Capello's preparation and tactics were spot-on, and had Gerrard not struck a post near the end the scoreline would have been even more convincing. It wasn't easy but England made it seem so.

It remains to be seen whether Capello can take England further than the quarterfinals, which is where Eriksson's England disembarked at World Cups and European Championships. The early signs are good and most of all an Italian has made the English love England again.

* * * * *

DAVID BECKHAM will equal Bobby Moore's record of 108 appearances — the most for an England outfield player — if he plays in next month's friendly against Germany in Berlin.

This has prompted discussion — I kid you not — that Beckham should announce his international retirement because Moore helped England to win the World Cup in 1966.

The pro-Moore (or if you prefer, anti-Beckham) brigade points out that the midfielder is being "given" England caps when he makes an appearance as a substitute.

Fabio Capello has used the former captain for a total of 20 minutes in the last three games and 264 minutes in all in nine matches under the Italian.

Beckham remains a key figure for Capello even in a cameo role. In Croatia, he came on and helped England retain possession in the closing minutes.

Against Kazakhstan, even in 11 minutes, Beckham showed he is still the best crosser of the ball available to his country.

He has accepted that he is no longer a first choice but loves playing for England so much he is happy to travel across the Atlantic to be a substitute.

Unlike Moore, a true great of his era, Beckham never quite touched world-class status but he has been a consistent, influential player for England and deserves every cap he wins. Maybe not great, but very good.

Peter Shilton remains England's most capped player with 125 and that record seems safe for the time being.

Beckham will surely surpass Moore's total soon and this observer, for one, will be delighted for a player who has given so much to football.

Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.


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