x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

England have one foot in South Africa

Fabio Capello's England side have transformed completely since the last time Croatia visited Wembley.

Fabio Capello, centre, talks to the England players during a training session in London Colney.
Fabio Capello, centre, talks to the England players during a training session in London Colney.

For England, it is about the past and about the future. It is about their most telling defeat in qualifying for a decade and a half and an imminent World Cup that may afford them their best chance in a generation. It is about Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello and about the difference 22 months can make to a nation's mood.

England meet Croatia at Wembley tonight, just as they did on a Wednesday in November 2007. Each fixture carried a prestigious prize - qualification for the European Championships then, a place in the World Cup now - but there, England must hope, the similarities end. Two years ago, Mladen Petric's glorious winner brought McClaren's reign to an ignominious conclusion. Now, even if Croatia can conjure another memorable victory, England have margin for error. Two further games mean a side with a perfect record thus far would remain the group favourites.

For some, that would provide an excuse to relax. Capello's demanding nature means he is a stranger to such complacency. There is a symmetry to the occasion, but the circumstances, compared to Croatia's last trip to Wembley, are very different. Then England's national team was in a state of disrepair, McClaren casting around in his search for a saviour from the rookie goalkeeper Scott Carson to recalling the discarded duo of Sol Campbell and David Beckham. Now, with seven wins from as many games, Capello has no such need to be radical.

The Italian has managed to acknowledge the claims of in-form players while bringing a constancy to his task. It is why, despite the defensive deficiencies that Slovenia exploited in England's 2-1 win on Saturday, Glen Johnson is likely to remain his right-back, why Emile Heskey should retain his role the focal point of the attack despite Jermain Defoe's scintillating start to the season, and why Robert Green will probably be preferred to Ben Foster in goal.

That all three positions remain the subject of debate shows that results can be achieved while problems persist. The Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek admitted his side had targeted Johnson, just as Kazakhstan had also found it profitable to focus on England's right flank. The speedy Croatian combination of Danijel Pranjic and Ivan Rakitic are likely to adopt a similar approach. In attack, meanwhile, Heskey is that contradiction in terms, the striker who does not strike. His total of 55 caps is the same as his captain, but he has only outscored John Terry by one whereas Defoe, the predator who seems to have established himself as a specialist substitute, averages a goal every 52 minutes under Capello.

Yet the Italian is not given to knee-jerk reactions and Heskey's pivotal role in the 4-1 victory in Zagreb last year should protect his position. There is a temptation, then, to suggest that both teams are on a quest for revenge after particularly damaging home defeats. In all likelihood, however, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry could prove the only Englishmen to start both home games.

Croatia have fewer survivors than they would wish. They arrive without the injured Luka Modric and the suspended Vedran Corluka, a pair who are "a great loss" in the words of their coach, Slaven Bilic. Robert Kovac, who was sent off in Zagreb last year, is sidelined while his older brother Niko has retired from international football. England's resident veteran is in danger of losing his sinecure.Beckham was an unused substitute on Saturday for the first time in more than 11 years. Previous transatlantic flights have always enabled him to add to his vast collection of caps. Now, not for the first time, Beckham is starting to look like England's past.

Win tonight and the future will definitely encompass South Africa in 2010. That would give Cape- llo nine months to decide upon his preferred goalkeeper, his favoured forward, his first-choice right-back and whether that future includes his most decorated player. rjolly@thenational.ae England v Croatia, KO 11pm, Aljazeera Sport + 5