Monday, 31 May 2010

Capello's Headaches Only Just Beginning

Casual followers of the England football team and their quest for global glory might have you believe that the passing of Sunday May 30th also indicated the end of the unenviable difficulties faced by the supreme leader, Fabio Capello. Yesterday saw the completion of the pre-selection encounters, which were navigated without any serious injury alarms, with Capello's declaration that he had now finalised the make-up of the 23-strong squad that will depart for the Rainbow Nation later this week following closely behind. However, those with their attention firmly focused on the constant rumblings and murmurings emanating from the England camp and its hangers-on know full well that the many problems besetting the Italian coach are only now thrusting themselves into the spotlight.

The most pressing concern, of course, must be whether Capello is set to cut the right players from his initial 30. Put another way, there are far more than 7 players who have shown themselves to be wholly undeserving of a place on the grandest stage. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the defence and midfield as entire units have been spectacularly poor during the preparatory fixtures, though I do not include the goalkeepers in this, as the almost inevitable selection of all three appears to have given them a confidence that is sorely lacking in even the cream of the outfield crop. Lampard and Gerrard have put in reasonable performances, without threatening to come close to the standards expected at their respective clubs, but the supporting cast have been sloppy in possession and unimaginative in their creation. James Milner looked particularly out of sorts against Mexico, while Michael Carrick and Tom Huddlestone passed in a fashion more befitting of David Brent than David Beckham.

In defence, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry looked nervous in a rare appearance together at the heart of the back four against Japan, while Ledley King was average at best against the Mexican livewires, even if he did not deserve all of the criticism heaped upon his shoulders in the post-match analysis. It would be extremely harsh on Michael Dawson if he were not handed a place on the plane, as his failure to appear so far has merely highlighted how much England could do with his committed displays and calmness on the ball. Leighton Baines was awful against Mexico, Glen Johnson almost as poor against Japan, with Ashley Cole's contribution yesterday providing welcome respite.

The poor fare on show last week has opened the door to Capello's fringe players, and I would suggest that Capello's selection ought to reflect this in all departments, apart from at the head of the team. Darren Bent continues to prove that he cannot translate his Premiership exploits into international stardom, so the four forwards are pretty much nailed on. Only one of Lennon and Walcott will be picked, most likely the former after some toothless displays from the latter. Expect to see Joe Cole and Adam Johnson sneak into the 23, if only because they offer a rather more cultured brand of playmaking than the often predictable running of the aforementioned London-based fliers. Shaun Wright-Phillips is also likely to be dropped after a poor season, though he was lively enough against the Japanese.

England's struggles in the middle of the park against livelier opponents also served to remind observers of the one major injury doubt plaguing Capello's mind, the ever-impressive Gareth Barry. The 29 year old has matured into one of the most important players in the England squad, benefitting hugely from the glass knees of Owen Hargreaves and forcing himself onto the England teamsheet at every opportunity. The England boss has confessed that the City man is a crucial member of the side, with his nature as a true box-to-box player blessed with a certain versatility and a dynamic left foot elevating him far above the likes of Carrick and Huddlestone, who, though better passes and strikers of the ball, are too often one-dimensional in their play and lack the pace to worry the more technical midfielders that the top international opponents can boast. His failure to recover from ankle ligament damage (Capello has said that he must be fit for Algeria and Slovenia if he is to be selected) could prove terminal to England's chances of making the latter stages of the tournament.

Capello's final problem lies rather further east than our considerations thus far, in the minds of the Inter Milan president, Massimo Moratti. Stripped of the Nerazzurri's prize asset - the Special One having taken his prodigious talent to the Bernabeu - Moratti has decided that the newly-crowned European champions need the greatest footballing mind available for the defence of their Treble. With Pep Guardiola unlikely to turn his back on the dream job of managing the marvellous Catalans, who have recently added the brilliant hitman David Villa to their title-winning squad, Capello is seen as the man for the post, and a less-than-impressive start to the tournament could see the pressure to ditch England and head back to Italy mount. It would be a considerable surprise if the mind-games do not increase in their frequency and intensity as the World Cup gets underway, particularly if we consider the possible benefits to Italy's own chances in their own title defence. The Italians are currently enjoying their usual role as dark horses, despite their 2006 triumph.

Capello has an opportunity to send some of these many issues into retreat with a bold and imaginative announcement on Tuesday, and England must hope that as few of his remaining dilemmas as possible are not of his own making. Inter's interest will not go away, regardless of Capello's proclamations of dedication to his adopted cause, but the dearth of confidence on the pitch is a problem that the hugely-respected chief can, and must, rectify if the golden generation is to finally gleam as all are sure it can.

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