It is the second week of June, three weeks away from the start of preseason training, and England, seven points clear at the top of their World Cup qualifying group, are playing at home to Andorra, a team ranked No 196 in the world. Time to experiment a little and give youth its head? No, time for Gary Neville and David Beckham.
According to one of his few confidants, Fabio Capello does not know the meaning of the word “experiment”. Much like the tale about him replacing a striker with a defender to protect a 1-0 lead during AC Milan’s pre-season tour to China in the mid-1990s, the observation was offered not sneeringly, but in full praise of the man’s dedication.
Right now, the job is to ensure qualification for next summer’s World Cup finals. Only when that target is reached — and the certain victory tonight will leave England needing a draw at home to Croatia in September to book their place in South Africa with three games to spare — will the focus switch to the longer term.
It is expected that Beckham will win his 112th cap in central midfield this evening, with Capello regarding him as a straight replacement for Gareth Barry rather than taking the option of trying to accommodate Ashley Young or James Milner. Neville, another 34-year-old, is likely to figure at some stage in what would be his 86th cap, but his first in almost three years.
There is a part of you that wants to urge Capello to think of the future, to look at Young or Milner on the left side or even to give Micah Richards a barely merited opportunity to rebuild his confidence at right back, but there is also a part of you that marvels at the Italian’s refusal to look beyond the immediate task in hand.
Speaking yesterday at Arsenal’s training ground, a place where devotion to youth has occasionally been taken to excessive lengths in recent times, Capello said that “we will have time to experiment once we’re sure of getting to South Africa”. So he does know the meaning of the word after all. It is just that a qualifying match against Andorra at Wembley in June is not considered the time or the place. And when you look at how well Capello’s judgment has served England so far — six World Cup qualifiers, six wins, 20 goals scored — it is impossible to take issue with him.
At some stage, the time will come to experiment and, whatever his reservations about the immediate merits of players such as Richards and Young, that will mean looking at what young talent exists beyond Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott. Of the 25 players Capello has used in this World Cup qualifying campaign, all but five — Stewart Downing, Glen Johnson, Rooney, Aaron Lennon and Walcott — are over the age of 26.
Others — Joe Hart, Richards, Leighton Baines, Curtis Davies, David Wheater, Michael Mancienne, Milner, Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor — have featured in the squad with varying regularity, but if they have made it on to the pitch, it has only been in friendly matches, when the manager’s hand has been forced by withdrawals.
Right now, England are functioning with an old squad — Beckham and Neville will be 35 when the 2010 World Cup finals start and Steven Gerrard will have joined Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard in the ranks of the thirtysomethings — but Capello is not blind to that.
He has shown, by investing such hope in Walcott and Rooney, that he is prepared to use young players of outstanding talent. It is the lesser players, those who are pulling up trees at Aston Villa but have not yet proved they are of the highest class, who have much to do if they are to win a place on the flight to South Africa next summer.
For Capello, that is a debate not just for another day but for next season. The immediate priority is a team to beat Andorra and, while that would appear a formality, the Italian knows from England’s previous encounters with the principality that these things are not always as straightforward as they should be.
Gerrard refers to the 3-0 win over Andorra in Barcelona in March 2007 as “the hardest match I’ve ever played with England” — an assessment based not on the quality of the opposition, but on their obduracy and on the bile and hostility that rained down from the travelling supporters as the stalemate continued into the second half. Even though England won that night, the damage done to the Steve McClaren regime would ultimately prove irreparable.
It is easy to forget now that Capello’s first competitive match in charge of England, against Andorra last September, was not terribly straightforward, either. Again the opening period was goalless, but this time Joe Cole scored twice within ten minutes of his half-time introduction and England won 2-0, went on to beat Croatia 4-1 in Zagreb four days later and the rest — as they might one day say — is history.
“I remember the first game we played for World Cup qualification. Do you remember?” Capello asked yesterday, as if the match was as long ago as it feels. “The first half, we drew in Andorra. This is football. I hope this time we score quickly. After one goal, you can play without pressure.”
So would that mean trying to run up a cricket score as a reward for those supporters who have navigated their way across a London that has been brought to a standstill by the Tube strike? “I think, always, when you play, you have to do the best show,” he replied. “But sometimes it is impossible.”
In other words, Capello would probably accept a scrappy win if it meant getting the job done. It is all about winning. Experimentation, entertainment and excitement? They do not even come close.
england played much better these days. their results are way better when they used to claim they played good football. thanx to capello for making england a big team again. youth or no youth that’s up to gaffer. he definitely knows which and when is the right time to play them.. article from TimesOnline.