A qualifying campaign can be likened to sex – ideally you hope for a confident start with a strong finish. If both are achieved the remaining time can be spent trying out a few new moves or simply going through the motions, whichever is preferred. Capello’s boys certainly got off to an accomplished flyer back in September with a 4-0 routing of Bulgaria swiftly followed by a dominant victory in Switzerland. Two games in and already people were lying back and thinking of England.
Though both fixtures were only twelve short months ago the roll call differed greatly to the leading lights expected to confirm qualification tonight with a point or better.
Back then Glen Johnson was virtually an automatic starter at right-back. Now, through a combination of injury and estimation, he’s fallen some distance behind Smalling, Richards and Walker.
A major topic of debate last year was who we could entrust to partner either Ferdinand or Terry should one succumb to the injuries they’re so prone to. From the four main candidates few could have predicted Gary Cahill to establish himself so firmly into the reckoning, to the extent where the omission of Ferdinand from the entire squad raised barely a flicker of interest.
Up front, following his predatory hat-trick dismissal of Bulgaria Jermaine Defoe was the man. Now however, following a dismal season for Spurs, even his former role as impact sub is denied him. Crouch too has fallen from favour as a whole litany of new contenders vie for the honour of shaking Rooney’s hand and having ten minutes to impress.
The Montenegrins may all sound like the contents of Courtney Love’s medicine cabinet but they’ve ran England close.
First-team aspirations for England’s out-and-out strikers got a whole lot harder after Capello – to his credit – used the middle section of the campaign to experiment. Granted he eschewed the whipped cream and bull-whip and merely abandoned the missionary four-four-two formation but my God how long have we all waited for that? Requiring only a draw away to a tricky proposition in Montenegro to guarantee avoidance of a nervy play-off, it’s inconceivable he will do anything but keep faith with a fresh, fluid system that’s showed mainly promise and hope to this point. Sure there was a stumble on its previous outing against Wales but that was largely due to a lack of tempo not the positioning of personnel.
Please Fabio, don’t fall back into old, encrusted habits. Stick with the plan and we’re surely home and dry.
The Montenegrins may all sound like the contents of Courtney Love’s medicine cabinet but they’ve ran England close, not least with a hard-fought stalemate at Wembley in October of last year. To suggest they’re no mugs does them a disservice but hell I’ll say it anyway. Yet their coach Branco Brnovic has all but given up the ghost and settled for silver with his decision to field a weakened team tonight. Liverpool flop Milan Jovanovic, defender Marko Basa, and set-piece specialist Drinčić are all rested due to each being a booking away from suspensions which would rule them out of the crucial likely battle for a play-off spot with the Swiss in four days time. It may not amount to an outright surrender this evening but Brnovic is certainly keeping some generals back for a war he thinks he has a better chance of winning.
Whether that’s tactically astute or being overly pessimistic remains to be seen but it bodes well for England: not only are they now facing a side who will be obliged to come out and attack but they’re doing so with diminished weaponry. Jet-heeled counters involving Young and Walcott will surely produce a chance or two.
As for Capello, he may have come in for a fair degree of flak and he may not be everyone’s cup of cappuccino but a result in Podgorica will ensure an unbeaten qualifying campaign. Which will merit at least a post-coital cigarette even if the climax so far has been a little flat.