Fabio Capello, in his first World Cup as a manager, will need to be practical to ensure a side beset by fitness and form worries progress
Fabio Capello is fairly old for a novice. He prepares for his first match at the World Cup finals as a manager with his 64th birthday approaching on Friday. Flippancy aside, this is a new challenge for a man whose sole experience of the tournament came as a player in 1974 when Italy failed to get out of the group stage.
Capello has the knowhow and drive required, yet he also strides into unfamiliar territory. That realisation is most likely what excites him. His absorption in the work was evident when he declined to be coquettish about the possibility of leaving to take up the post at Internazionale and instead confirmed rapidly that he would see out a four-year contract.
Forbidding though he might look, he will be excited about the weeks ahead. Some of the edge comes from the fact that there is a need for a fresh start. Perhaps England did too well too soon. His first competitive fixture may have been a muffled 2-0 win over Andorra that felt like an extension of the Steve McClaren era, but any misconception evaporated in the searing night that followed.
No matter how long Capello holds the post, it is unfeasible that he could ever amaze us again quite as he did four days later with the 4-1 drubbing of Croatia in Zagreb, particularly since a 19-year-old Theo Walcott completed a hat-trick. Now Capello is in a wholly different phase epitomised by the fact that the Arsenal player did not make the cut for the World Cup.
To an extent England are starting again. Rio Ferdinand is gone, which is a blow, even if it was in keeping with his campaign at Manchester United that a mishap should befall him. It might have been handy, too, if David Beckham were around to come on and help hold possession when a game is at a delicate stage. Less publicised woes have hit Capello, who could have done with a match-fit Wes Brown as an option at right-back or centre-half.
More than any individual case history, the manager has to dwell on re-establishing dynamism. It was inevitable that it would dwindle once qualification had been clinched last September. The players had a professional obligation to forget England as they focused on the Premier League and, in several cases, the Champions League.
Perhaps their minds never quite returned to the national team and it is as if they are starting from scratch. That might be a good thing although we have to take it on trust that, as Capello contends, a maximum of seven matches at the World Cup is not too taxing even for a rather mature group whose leavening of youth was reduced with the ditching of Walcott.
England still look stretched. Should the USA be beaten, there will be some thought about how to ration resources in the seemingly simpler group matches that follow, although that might mean no more than making comparatively early substitutions. There is, after all, a brittleness to England's prospects.
It is stirring to think of Ledley King appearing at these finals, yet the romance originates, to some degree, in the adversity that removed Ferdinand. The Tottenham Hotspur player enters the line-up to stand shoulder to shoulder with John Terry, a man who is not so much in shape as accustomed to living with limitations.
If England proceed in the World Cup, attention will have to be paid to screening the pair so that a lack of mobility is not exposed. No wonder Capello has been anxious about Gareth Barry's recovery from injury and resistant to pitching his one plausible holding midfielder into the USA match. Against all reason the manager had even persisted with the thought of having Owen Hargreaves in the party despite the fact that, to all intents and purposes, he was absent from the entire United campaign.
Capello did not choose that England should be fallible in defence, yet has had to live with regularly conceding in the qualifiers. The four clean sheets in those ten fixtures came against Andorra (twice), Kazakhstan and Belarus. The focus on attack by this manager has been a necessity rather than an unlikely conversion to romance.
His resources are fairly good in that regard and an overlapping Ashley Cole adds to them notably. Aaron Lennon will offer speed on the right, should he be picked today. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard can have impact, too, even if the Chelsea midfielder is asked to hang back for security purposes against the USA.
Should England contain Bob Bradley's side they ought to break down opponents who appear to lack organisation and resilience when they lose the ball. It should still be with a heavy heart that an England manager has to pray once more for a spectacular impact from Wayne Rooney, even if he is at least healthier than he was four years ago.
Most of all the manager has been looking for a toehold in these matches. That may explain why he has taken to employing a more rigid 4-4-2 since that even distribution of players assists in pressing the opposition when they are in possession. England could be stirring and even dangerous at a tournament virtually no one expects them to win, but first of all they aim to be severely practical.