IN Fabio Capello we trust. The Italian is the ideal man to lead the England charge in South Africa. He believes we have a chance, and that’s good enough for me, now it’s up to the nation to share that belief.
Man for man, this is our best chance of success for many a year. At his disposal, Capello has agility in goal, solidity at the back, invention and pace in midfield and goals up front.
I’ve been involved in many a successful side, both domestically for Arsenal, and for England, and firmly believe that this could well be our year after so many years of hurt.
Here is my run-down on the options available and the strengths and weaknesses we possess:
BETWEEN THE STICKS
Still not our strongest area, but the fact that all three goalkeepers have reasonable first-team claims adds to competition and that can only be healthy.
If you look at Spain, they have Pepe Reina as their third-choice, and he’s one of the best keepers in the Premier League. Even the United States have three decent keepers from our top-flight.
If you’re going on form, then Joe Hart is the man. He’s had a fantastic season for Birmingham, while David James and Robert Green have both had it tough this year for Portsmouth and West Ham respectively.
But I can’t help thinking back to when Steve McClaren threw in Scott Carson for the vital qualifier with Croatia in 2008. He buckled on the night and disappeared out of contention. I’d hate that to happen to a talented young keeper like Joe Hart if thrown into the deep end.
For that reason, James has to given the start against the USA on Saturday. He’s a cool and experienced head for the big occasion, and as this will surely be his last major tournament, it’s the perfect final bow.
AT THE BACK
The back four have come under scrutiny after an awkward warm-up campaign, but I’m sure once an understanding is built, this won’t be Capello’s biggest concern when he looks at his squad.
Sure, the loss of Rio Ferdinand is a massive blow, but it needn’t be the end of the world given the quality of player we have to step into the breach.
Rio is a fantastic player and, of course, any team will miss their skipper, but when one door closes, another one opens, and in Michael Dawson, Fabio has a confident young defender, bang in form and desperate for a chance to impress.
I would have picked Dawson initially given the season he’s had with Tottenham, yet he still falls behind his Spurs team-mate Ledley King and Jamie Carragher in the pecking order, and on a par with West Ham’s Matthew Upson.
If Ledley’s knee holds up, he’s one of the best defenders in the Premier League and has to be the No1 contender to partner John Terry in the centre of defence.
Unfortunately, you get the feeling this will be King’s last tournament, so I just hope his knee can last the distance and pull out the stops.
Carragher is a good, solid professional, whose decision to come out of retirement would have been a massive boost to Capello. Equally comfortable at right back or in the centre, he’s the perfect guy to have around and I can see him playing a big part in South Africa.
Ashley Cole is, in my opinion, the best left-back in the world and a nailed-on starter, while Glen Johnson should get the nod to start on the right.
Both of these guys love to get forward, but while Cole is equally effective bombing down the left or as defensive cover, Johnson is not the best defender in the world.
Capello will be drumming it into these guys to make the right choices in when to go forward and when to tuck in and cover whenever the other is more advanced.
CENTRE OF THE PARK
The options open to Capello here are endless, but the key factor here is the fitness of Gareth Barry. Barry’s defensive mind is crucial to freeing up Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard and gives England balance.
Barry misses out against the USA on Saturday, which is a blow, but in Michael Carrick, Capello has a great passer of a ball who is used to the big-game atmosphere with Manchester United. He would be an ideal replacement.
Lampard is Capello’s little gem after a brilliant season with Chelsea. There’s been a lot of hype about whether he and Gerrard can play together, but, for me, it’s just that, hype. A Barry-type figure may give them more freedom, but they are quality individuals, playing at their peak of their careers, so parting them is not a necessity should Capello find his options limited.
Capello seems to be looking at playing Gerrard just off the left flank, and that’s not such a bad thing. With Ashley Cole backing him up on the overlap, Gerrard has the freedom to cut in and cause the kind of damage he does for Liverpool.
Having a right-footer on the left is not such a bad thing. I remember at Arsenal, both Marc Overmars and Robert Pires were right-footers playing on the left, and, if anything, it gave the side extra options.
In contrast, the right side should offer more width with Aaron Lennon, for me, the most likely starter. Lennon’s had his problems with injury this season, but his pace is a constant threat and his final ball has improved no end under Harry Redknapp at Spurs.
All of these, however, will be aware of a certain Joe Cole, left, pushing for a starting place. He’s been England’s best player in the last two warm-up games and has the added advantage of his versatility, given he can play right, left, centre or as a supporting striker.
Joe’s been unlucky for starts at Chelsea this season, but has shown a great attitude in working his way into the reckoning. The only question is, where do you play him?
Arguably, he is the most criticised of England’s 23-man party, but Emile Heskey’s contribution in South Africa could be key to England’s chances.
Yes, Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe have better scoring records, but Heskey has the knack of bringing out the best in Wayne Rooney, main inset, and that has to be Capello’s number one priority as an attacking force.
Rooney is different class and our great hope and without him firing on all cylinders, there is none.
While there is the option of playing a Gerrard or a Joe Cole just behind, it’s imperative we give Rooney as much support as possible and you can be assured Capello will be saying to Heskey ‘work your socks off for 60-65 minutes’ before thinking of his next move.
Rooney’s temperament has come under scrutiny also in the run-up to the World Cup, but I think it’s a crucial facet of his game.
Denis Bergkamp had that nasty streak also in our days at Arsenal and, as a midfield player, it’s a great sight to see your striker putting tackles in and dying for the cause. Take that from his game, he’s not the same player and that’s a risk England certainly can’t afford to take.