The manager hankers after a rejuvenation of England but has usually had to limit experiments because of the risk entailed
Fabio Capello must have been the most angry and disconsolate witness of England's mortifying campaign at the 2010 World Cup. As a proud individual, he will have been shuddering ever since at the thought that his managerial career could end in ignominy. Capello, after all, has been adamant that his plan is to retire after next summer's European Championship finals.
England are not sure yet of appearing at that tournament but even if they are unable to take the point they require against Montenegro in Podgorica on Friday they could still top the group or advance as the best runners-up or through the play-offs. The qualifiers should be more of an inconvenience than a challenge. While it would be foolish of Capello to speak about plans for the finals in Poland and Ukraine, his thoughts must turn to games there that will determine the reputation he carries as he walks away.
This manager, like virtually all others, has experienced rejection and was removed from the post at Milan and later Real Madrid but the general sense has been of a person in command of his own destiny. That sort of aura usually dims for people embroiled with England and there was, for instance, a comedy of powerlessness this season when the players enraged him at a training session by ignoring his instructions about throw-ins.
Everything has combined to make it seem as if the football matches themselves are trying to turn their back on him. Montenegro took a point at Wembley, with Capello having no apparent bearing on the goalless draw. Switzerland might well have won there in June, although England did wring some sort of credit from the occasion by recovering from 2-0 down to finish on level terms. The larger and troubled issue is the revitalisation of the team.
Despite all the attention paid to Phil Jones, particularly when he moved from Blackburn to Manchester United in June, the defender is yet to be capped at senior level. At 19, he can afford to be patient but his case typifies Capello's dilemma. It would certainly be good to accelerate his promotion, especially if there is a worry that Rio Ferdinand, who was left out of this week's squad, might have trouble confirming his durability in the severe fitness test of the Premier League programme.
On the other hand, it will be tempting in Podgorica to put a seasoned defender alongside John Terry when there is a need to be wary. Capello should be rueful since a home win over Montenegro or Switzerland would have left him with the sole task of tweaking and, if feasible, refreshing the side for the finals. Had there been a dead game at the end of the group, it would have been brimming with life for those invited to further their education as international players.
The best that can be said now is that it will be a useful examination of the side's temperament, particularly if Montenegro are as effective as ever at staying in contention. Capello is no idealist and the five forwards in his party spoke primarily of a determination not to let the opposition dictate the terms of the match. Three of them are 25 or under and Bobby Zamora alone has hit his 30th birthday.
Out of sheer practicality, this area of the squad is the one that speaks of adventurousness. England seem to have zest in mind and are counting a little less on the knowhow that is usually prized. There was a strong suggestion that the situation involving Steven Gerrard had been misinterpreted. By that account, Capello and his staff were not trying to winkle the 31‑year‑old midfielder out of Anfield at all costs since they were doubtful that he could be of service after failing to start a match for six months following surgery.
It is pragmatic to draw on youth, as Capello confirmed with the inspired selection of the 19-year-old Theo Walcott who then scored that hat-trick against Croatia in 2008. He has not had the licence to experiment as much as he would have wanted but there are regular hints of a pining to do so. The manager has wanted to give Kyle Walker a debut for some time but only now does it seem that the Tottenham right‑back will at last be available.
Capello hankers after a rejuvenation of England but has usually had to limit the experiments because of the risk entailed. Danny Welbeck got his first and, so far, only cap with England in the game with Ghana eight months ago when he was still on loan to Sunderland from Manchester United.
However, the forward is now making his mark at Old Trafford. It is precisely the sort of impact Capello must yearn to see. The manager, with little time left in the post, may never see his side brimming with the kind of promise shown by Germany in the 4-1 defeat of England at the World Cup. With luck, though, he may leave a tinge of optimism as his legacy.