FIFA World Cup 2010: Are England Contenders Or Pretenders?

Chris PotterCorrespondent IMarch 28, 2009

SEVILLE, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 11:  England Manager Fabio Capello looks on prior to the International Friendly between Spain and England at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium on February 11, 2009 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)

Twelve points from four matches. So far so good.

England go into next week's home 2010 World Cup qualification match against Ukraine in buoyant mood and good form.

Despite defeat against Spain last month in Seville and an insipid performance reminiscent of Steve McClaren's reign, all is looking rosy for the Three Lions.

Their dismantling of a fancied Croatian team on foreign soil gave long-suffering England fans a glimpse of an exciting future and hope that, after 44 years of disappointment, 2010 may be their year.

Not only did Capello's men completely outclass and overwhelm the Croats, but also they showed a ruthless streak and focus that had seemed to be lacking ever since their famous 5-1 victory over Germany at the start of the millennium.

This was a different England: Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry dominated in the middle of the pitch, Wayne Rooney seemed to be back to his best and a young Theo Walcott stormed onto the international with a blistering hat-trick.

There was belief, passion, a defined plan that was adhered to and—most encouragingly—pride. 

Many felt that, despite his undeniable managerial credentials, impressive aura, strong personality, and legendary no-nonsense approach to football, Fabio Capello would struggle to deal with the invasive media coverage and toxic WAG culture that had stagnated the national sport.

Fast forward 16 months and even Capello's most fierce and stubborn critics have eaten humble pie.

He has not had things all his own way, having overcome several battles already - the club versus country row that has proved so disruptive has yet again reared its ugly head over the last week in the debate over Ledley King's fitness.

But so long as Capello remains focused and continues to receive the support of the players, England will grow from strength to strength and should be expected to fight it out with Italy, Spain and Germany as the strongest European contenders for the Jules Rimet trophy.

Six matches in Group Six remain starting with a home tie against Ukraine next week but, with England so dominant and only two tricky away fixtures to deal with, qualification is a certainty.

Capello will hope to have wrapped up the No. 1 spot by the time Croatia visit in September, and interest will turn not to the results thereafter, but rather to how the squad takes shape going into 2010. 

By this time, a new Premier League season will be in full swing and there will be a dozen or so men going hell for leather in an attempt to convince the wily Italian that they should be on the plane to South Africa come the summer.

For players such as Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon, Joleon Lescott, Gabi Agbonlahor and Ashley Young, the 2009-10 season could make or break their international careers.

For the likes of fringe players Ledley King, Emile Heskey and Robert Green, this could be their last chance to enter an England hall of fame that would feature legends such as Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Geoff Hurst.

Coach Capello has made it clear that he will pick players who are fit, focused and in form. The man neither holds grudges nor believes in favouritism.

No player can show any complacency or taken anything for granted, and there may be some surprise call-ups a la Michael Mancienne and Ledley King over the next few months.

This fierce competition for places and the renaissance of steely professionalism that has made a much-needed return to international training camps and preparation for matches means that England are serious contenders, not washed up pretenders as has been the case in the past.

There still remain many questions unanswered, many problems unresolved for English football—there is no genuine No. 1, a lack of world-class strikers and a real fear of burn-out—but if England continue full steam ahead in Capello's safe hands, there is no reason to doubt that this England team has every chance of replicating the triumph of the class of '66.