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England sail through, but how are their World Cup chances?
So, once again, England qualify in style. The garages can start stocking up on plastic flags of St George, the breweries can breathe a sigh of relief and the tabloids can start their gradual shift from cautious support to the crescendo of expectation that will accompany Fabio Capello and his squad to South Africa next year.
But is there any evidence that “this time, more than any other time, they’ll do it right“?
Do England really have a team capable of getting beyond the quarter-finals, let alone winning the thing?
Points in favour:
1. The rest of the world aren’t so hot at the moment. Brazil, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands are going along pretty nicely but Argentina, France, Portugal and even Italy have got problems. None of them looks unbeatable.
2. Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. These are players truly deserving the “world class” tag and when fit and on form provide England with a deadly attacking triangle capable of undoing the very best of defences.
3. Capello. The Italian’s calm authority has permeated a squad previously drowning in its own self-satisfaction. There shouldn’t be any idiotic selections and once in South Africa this squad will be focused solely on the task in hand — and that won’t be accompanying their wives on shopping trips to Sandton.
4. A winter World Cup. England haven’t played in one since 1962 in Chile. For all the high-tech kits they roll out ever two years and for all the efforts and intervention of foreign coaches, England’s all-action approach is not suited to boiling temperatures.
5. It’s about time.
1. The number one problem. Capello says David James is his first choice goalkeeper but even if the 39-year-old year old regains fitness and has a great season his history of high-profile calamities will be in the back of everyone’s mind as England advance.
England have suffered previously from hanging on too long to ageing goalkeepers, with the concrete boots of Peter Shilton (1990) and David Seaman (2002) leaving indelible images of inaction.
The back-up cast of Robert Green, Paul Robinson, Scott Carson, Ben Foster and Joe Hart all have their talents but none inspires total confidence.
2. Second striker. Emile Heskey seems the current first-choice partner for Rooney but few teams win a World Cup with a forward who is allergic to goals. Jermain Defoe has staked an early claim to replace him but sharp finisher though he is he does not link well. Carlton Cole is surely not the answer. Peter Crouch offers all sorts of options, scores goals, has great control and an incisive pass and defenders don’t like playing against him. However, he does not seem to be Capello’s favourite, which leaves an extraordinary amount of pressure on Rooney.
3. Defence. Ashley Cole is superb and the John Terry/Rio Ferdinand partnership has proved reliable, even if showing worrying signs of positional wanderings of late. However, Glen Johnson looks like a winger forced to borrow a number two shirt and opposition coaches will attack him mercilessly.
4. Strength in depth (lack thereof). England, without Rooney in Portugal and Germany, were a team heading home. Another injury or red card for the maestro will again end their hopes at a stroke. The squad players generally look a short on class and World Cup finals are rarely won with the 11 players a manager would have pencilled in at the start of a tournament.
Maybe Capello has enough about him to craft a team able to triumph in 10 months’ time but, as ever, it looks an extraordinarily difficult task.