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Saturday, Sept. 12, 2009


England's performance raises expectations

LONDON — So far so very good.

Christopher Davies

We can worry about the goal-keeping situation, lack of cover at fullback and no viable alternative to Wayne Rooney later.

For the time being, England can reflect on the stunning 5-1 thrashing of Croatia, the best performance by the national team since Terry Venables' side beat Holland 4-1 at Euro '96.

Two years ago, Croatia came to Wembley and won 3-2, ending England's dreams of reaching the finals of Euro '08 and Steve McClaren's ill-advised tenure as manager.

This time the gulf in class was of Grand Canyon proportions. And Croatia could play England again at the finals next summer, as Slaven Bilic's team — defeated 4-1 in Zagreb last year — is still on course to reach the playoffs.

The man who has restored England's pride, confidence and belief is Fabio Capello, a 60-something Italian. The English have a slightly hypocritical attitude toward foreigners in their football — basically when they are successful, they are accepted, so Capello is a hero in his adopted country.

Few people really know Capello, he makes sure of that by giving away even less than his side which qualified for the finals by conceding only five goals in eight games.

Never before has England qualified with two matches to spare.

While it is puzzling that Capello's English seems to have become worse in his two years in charge, like so many Italians, the man has style.

Capello is always in control of his emotions and is almost statuesque even when England scores. If Mr. Cool punches the air we blink, believing it is an illusion.

When Capello took over from the hapless McClaren, England feared playing at Wembley after some poor results at the national stadium. England doesn't do fear now, and the worry is that the Italian has raised English hopes to unreasonable levels.

That is inevitable after scoring 31 goals in eight qualification games, more than any other European team. Capello has made the so-called impossible job appear easy. He has found a way to effectively accommodate Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in midfield, which his predecessors failed to do.

In fact, it is difficult to find a fault with the way Capello has transformed England in two years. The main criticism the media has is that there are no leaks about his team selections and predicting Capello has proved to be journalistic suicide.

His tactics and substitutions have been spot-on, while England's football has, in the big games, been spectacular. No grind-out wins or back-to-the-wall jobs — there has never been a moment in any of the eight qualifiers when Capello's England looked in trouble.

He persists with Emile Heskey, a non-scoring striker, as Wayne Rooney's partner because Capello knows football is not an 11-man game.

Heskey's physical presence for an hour or so leaves opposing defenses vulnerable for the arrival of the lightning quick Jermain Defoe, who has become England's all-time record goal-scoring substitute with six goals.

Rooney has scored 11 goals in his last 10 internationals.

In the last 11 games when he has started alongside Heskey, Rooney has scored eight goals. Rooney is currently the leading scorer in the European qualifying zone, with nine goals — if one England player is irreplaceable, it is the Manchester United striker.

Much importance is placed on the starting XI but in many ways the teams that finish games are every bit as important, and Defoe has proved to be a hugely effective impact sub.

Capello will use the two remaining qualifying ties against Ukraine (away) and Belarus (home) to give some fringe players experience, but injuries and dramatic loss of form apart, the manager will know all but three or four of the squad he will take to South Africa.

He will hope West Ham goalkeeper Rob Green has a solid, consistent season because, at almost 40, David James would be a risk at the highest level.

Glen Johnson has his critics, but the only option at right-back is Wes Brown, and the Manchester United defender is dogged by untimely injuries.

Wayne Bridge is Ashley Cole's understudy at left-back, but the Chelsea player is rated by many observers as the best in his position in the world and would, like Rooney, be a significant loss.

"If everyone is fit, why not?" was Capello's response when asked if England could mount a realistic challenge to be world champions.

There can be guarded optimism, and the World Cup tends to be won by one of an elite group, which is bad news for Paraguay or Russia.

European champion Spain and serial World Cup winner Brazil are the two best teams at the moment, and the chasing pack will pray the big two meet in the knockout stage before the final.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.

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