x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Quietly confident

Fabio Capello, the England coach, is tired of World Cup talk, but the perfect qualifying campaign so far gives him time to assemble his final squad.

England's Peter Crouch, centre, scores past the Andorra goalkeeper Koldo Alvarez.
England's Peter Crouch, centre, scores past the Andorra goalkeeper Koldo Alvarez.

"People are always talking about the World Cup, the World Cup, the World Cup," Fabio Capello sighed, the repetition seeming to add to his annoyance. They are, but it is increasingly difficult to change the subject of conversation. One win may suffice for England to secure a trip to South Africa. Seven wins in seven games constitutes an impeccable qualifying record in Capello's first season in charge and England, accident-prone losers under Steve McClaren, appear imbued with the Italian's professionalism.

The 6-0 thrashing of Andorra was never likely to provide many indications about England's prospects next summer, but it allowed Capello to experiment. Ashley Young, only previously afforded 16 minutes by the Italian, was introduced at half-time, while Joleon Lescott was given a first start in nine months. With 11 months to finalise his squad, such individuals take on a greater significance for Capello now. Thus far, his reliance on a solid core of players has served him well. Only 13 have started four or more of the fixtures this season while his more quixotic choices, from Jimmy Bullard to Michael Mancienne, have not taken the field at all.

If a regular replacement like Jermain Defoe, who consolidated his case for a place in South Africa with a brace at Wembley, has grounds for confidence, another may prompt a tougher decision. David Beckham prospered as a deep-lying playmaker against Andorra, though whether he can operate in such a role against better opposition is a moot point. He will turn 35 a month before the World Cup starts, but Capello has been unwavering in his loyalty and Beckham consistently effective as an impact substitute.

Even if he travels to a fourth World Cup, several of the places as understudies remain to be determined. They include Steven Gerrard's deputy on the left and at least one of the striking berths. With vacancies in the goalkeeping department, among the right-backs and in midfield, Capello's focus may lie on Old Trafford. Ben Foster, Wes Brown and Owen Hargreaves mustered just 16 Manchester United starts between them in a season when the latter pair, in particularly, were troubled by injuries. Yet each has the potential to figure in Capello's first-choice team next year.

Foster, if he can displace Edwin van der Sar at United, is a less eccentric alternative to David James. Brown, before being sidelined, was established on the right of Capello's back four. Although Glen Johnson contributed to four of the goals against Andorra, the United man may be deemed a more dependable defender. While Gareth Barry has been Capello's preferred choice alongside Frank Lampard, he did not anchor Aston Villa's midfield. Hargreaves is more of a specialist and possesses greater energy. When Capello himself, however reluctantly, talks about the World Cup, there are plenty of positions to discuss.