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In England, the only thing Fabio Capello has definitely become is older
Paul Hayward at St Jakob Park, Basle - 7 years ago

Fabio Capello first opened the door on our manic cabaret 31 months ago with a friendly win against Switzerland, who have since beaten Spain at the World Cup while the imperious iron-fisted England coach has acquired the first traces of a thousand-yard stare.

"We are fresh, all the players are running, their minds are free," Capello said after this 3-1 victory over the Swiss, making it sound less like Basle than Woodstock. This is qualifying, not a tournament. These are September nights, not the burned-out ends of smoky Premier League campaigns. But at least there is more to talk about than dysfunction, assuming you steer clear of Sunday newspapers. Who would have thought that Adam Johnson could lead the mind from despair?

Back in February 2008, the new Englatalian reign started with David Bentley and Jermaine Jenas in the starting XI and the "cradle of football", as the president of the Swiss FA called them in his programme notes here in Basle, hopeful that Capello's exemplary record in the European club game would correct decades of technical and tactical ineptitude.

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England were attempting to achieve on a macro scale what the Swiss pulled off in micro: a surge in competence, inspired by clever management. In the event Ottmar Hitzfeld's Swiss were the only country to beat the eventual world champions in South Africa while Capello's England came home under a blanket. Der General's work in a small country far outshines Don Fabio's in a big one.

But it all starts again now, with Hereford, Carlisle, Preston, Walsall, Herne Bay and Basildon still here to declare small-town England's love, and that lame phrase, "off-the-field issues" omnipresent to prove that voyeurism and schadenfreude are now mass entertainment.

Old delusions persist. "No Surrender to the IRA" is sung with renewed gusto, years after the Good Friday agreement, James Milner talks of other countries "raising their game against England", as if lowering St George's flag is some kind of historic feat, and energy and thrust in qualifiers is still mistaken for tournament‑winning potential.

The only choice is to go on, of course, and Friday night's 4-0 home win over Bulgaria did a fine job of concealing England's alarming defensive frailties while confirming their ability to smash less wealthy nations when Wayne Rooney is on song, Steven Gerrard is allowed to forage through the middle and a striker – any striker – is willing and able to bring more precision to the enterprise than Emile Heskey.

This time round – Euro 2012 is the latest Sisyphean target – Jermain Defoe, the second England player to leave this field on a stretcher, has finally started to resemble the goal-getter his publicists said he would be in his late teenage years. At 27 he has left it relatively late to lock down a starting place in Capello's first XI, but on his current form he has solved one of the England coach's most vexing problems: how to spin two credible threats to opposing defences out of a squad short on top-class international centre-forwards.

But there is another new spark in England's attacking play. For years they searched for reliable wide boys – from Stewart Downing to Shaun Wright-Phillips and Aaaron Lennon – and now finally they have a found a pair in Theo Walcott and Adam Johnson, even if Walcott lasted less than 10 minutes before departing with a heavily strapped ankle. His replacement, Manchester City's Johnson, combines audacity with cunning, on either wing. His second-half goal showed there is an outcome to go with his speed and dexterity.

Milner's tenacity in wide areas is another virtue which Capello is now using to bring Gerrard in from his personal wilderness on the left. On that side Ashley Cole is still on overdrive as if fleeing a private forest fire. Soon we may need a special sliding scale (a Capello Index?) to measure emotional difficulty against performance, with super-injunction ratings thrown in.

After Capello's World Cup senior moments (not taking Johnson or Walcott, rushing Gareth Barry back, playing 4-4-2) extra vigilance is applied to every decision, and some still defy explanation. Against Bulgaria, Gary Cahill replaced the injured Michael Dawson and made an instant impression but in this second qualifier Joleon Lescott was promoted over Cahill to join Phil Jagielka in central defence. Why? Because Jagielka and Lescott played together at Everton more than a year ago?

England's back four remains an accident in waiting, especially with Glen Johnson in one of his prolonged scatterbrain phases. Strangely, for a Capello team, there is no strong sense that the whole side is adhering to collective defensive principles, as Switzerland's Xherdan Shaqiri demonstrated when cutting through their midfield and thumping a shot past Hart to halve England's lead before Darren Bent, on 86 minutes, closed the deal.

The one guaranteed legacy of the England job is that it will make the holder feel older. After an outburst Capello walks back to his bench these days with the tentative gait of a man walking in from his allotment. You can live and die a lot between two games against the Swiss.

This is comment. GNM does not necessarily support the views expressed.

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