All of a sudden, life for Fabio Capello has begun to look difficult as England’s preparations for the World Cup enter the final phase.
Yet Capello’s dilemmas are less about piecing together a squad capable of challenging the World’s elite but to the far more onerous, yet enviable one of whittling down a list of 23 names from a list which appears to be growing by the week.
That is not to say that Capello does not have causes for concern. The absence of Rio Ferdinand over the weekend, and the general over-reliance on Wayne Rooney for both club and country are definite worries, as was the shaky display of former captain John Terry for Chelsea.
Yet these are players who have proved themselves over time, and who, lest we tempt fate, can almost certainly be counted upon for their country in South Africa, fitness permitting.
But on the other hand, after years of bemoaning a general absence of any semblance of genuine sustained competition for places in the England side, this weekend—Fabio Capello took in three games in total—demonstrated that a number of players are putting their names up for consideration.
At Eastlands, Capello will have bemoaned Paul Scholes' enforced absence, who gave a masterful display of passing football, and proved that the finest distributor of a football at England’s disposal will not, sadly, be in South Africa.
While the Italian may have been disappointed as the game passed Adam Johnson by, following his effusive praise of the Manchester City winger, he will have been buoyed by the form of Gary Neville who subdued the capable Craig Bellamy with a fine defensive display.
The United captain may not be to everyone’s taste (not least the blue side of Manchester, or anyone in Merseyside), but he has major tournament experience, and unlike England’s incumbent right back Glen Johnson, knows the art of defending inside out.
Meanwhile, following a mid-afternoon dash to London for the evening kick-off, the form of Michael Dawson will surely have made an impression on the England boss.
Following his costly slip against Portsmouth last weekend, Dawson has turned in two superlative displays against both Arsenal and Chelsea in a week.
Against Chelsea, he comfortably outshone his counterpart John Terry and was a rock at the heart of a superb Tottenham display.
Capello may bemoan that Gareth Bale’s energetic forays down the left will be used against England during the 2012 qualifiers not by them, but the display from Dawson will have been ample compensation.
Though the failure of Joe Cole to make an impression on the match will have been alarming.
Then, at a half-full Fratton Park, Capello will have been enthused by the performances of two of his more established members.
Despite conceding two goals, neither of which he could do anything about, David James looked in imperious form-including a smart penalty save from John Carew, while James Milner was named man of the match for a lively display at the heart of Villa's midfield.
All of a sudden a number of contenders are beginning to find force their way into the reckoning for a place in South Africa, which suddenly begin to jeopardise the places of a number of players who Capello has called upon time and again.
At centre half, Matthew Upson and Joleon Lescott were Capello’s preferred replacements for Terry and Ferdinand, but given the form of Dawson plus rehabilitated duo Phil Jagielka and Sol Campbell, their places are now under threat.
Similarly, Emile Heskey—the battering ram from qualifying—has struggled for goals and games at Aston Villa.
While Capello may stick by him after his displays in qualifying, given the Italian’s emphasis on fitness and form the cases for Peter Crouch, the prolific Darren Bent, or even Fulham's man of the moment, Bobby Zamora, displacing him cannot be discounted.
Though the cases for Jack Wilshere (flourishing steadily on loan at Bolton), Owen Hargreaves, and Ryan Shawcross are weakened by inexperience, lack of matches and ill-timed injury respectively, they demonstrate the kind of options suddenly at the Italian's disposal.
All of which ensures that for Fabio Capello, a difficult but strangely compelling two months awaits.
The Italian’s pragmatic approach may ensure that his selections tend to stick with the tried and tested which have previously served him so well during his time as England manager.
But the performances of those outside Capello’s squad should ensure that his established order are kept on their toes until he makes his final picks for who is on the plane to South Africa.
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