Aston Villa the key to Fabio Capello's England goal

14 February 2009 02:13
It was the last of his post-match briefings for the press in Seville and Fabio Capello expressed bemusement. "I have to ask,'' he said. "Why do you speak only about Aston Villa?'' We, representing Sunday newspapers, explained that our readers would awake bursting with anticipation of today's FA Cup tie in which Villa meet Everton at Goodison Park.

Not only that: Villa were a legitimate subject for the national coach in that their fortunes have become linked with those of the squad for which Capello has responsibility. They have become as important to England, you might say, as Liverpool's are to Spain.

Indeed, while Spain selected five Liverpool players – Fernando Torres and Xabi Alonso appeared from the start, Alvaro Arbeloa and Pepe Reina came on and Albert Riera was an unused substitute – for a match in which they were to outpass their visitors just as comprehensively as in Madrid in 2004, England had selected six from Villa if you included Luke Young, who withdrew because of injury.

Gareth Barry, Emile Heskey and Gabriel Agbonlahor started, Ashley Young and James Milner were unused substitutes. Curtis Davies must have been close to a call-up after travelling to the previous friendly in Germany and a few more of Martin O'Neill's players, including Nicky Shorey, Nigel Reo-Coker and Steve Sidwell, harbour ambitions. So it was legitimate to ask if Capello hoped Villa would qualify for the Champions League next season.

"I'm neutral,'' Capello said at first, but, having been enlightened and reassured, he overcame his professional aversion to singling-out – nothing makes him sigh like the obligation to address questions about David Beckham, say, or Michael Owen – and admitted it would help England if Villa players obtained Champions League experience.

Only Heskey, late of Liverpool, has it at the moment, but Capello agreed he kept a close watch on Villa's Premier League progress because, in the Champions League, they would encounter teams with "very, very important players'' and "not only the English style''.

Third and fourth places in the Premier League secure no guarantees because they oblige you to pre-book for Europe's top table and the visit to Everton should provide a sharp reminder because David Moyes's team, having finished fourth in 2005, had the misfortune to meet the Villarreal of Marcos Senna and Juan Roman Riquelme for a place in the group stage and lost home and away.

But O'Neill's Villa keep collecting points, as – without quite the same relentless consistency – do Moyes's Everton. These clubs benefit from expert management, but you could see the difference between Premier League and top class in stark relief last Wednesday as David Villa turned poor Phil Jagielka inside out before scoring the first of Spain's two unanswered goals.

You could also, of course, make the point that neither goal left John Terry, who has obtained a wealth of Champions League experience at Chelsea, covered in glory. There is plenty about England that Capello must sort out before those of us who rate them as serious candidates for the World Cup can be rid of those familiar patronising smiles.

Only Heskey punched his weight in Seville and there was a huge gap between him and the midfield, in which Michael Carrick was especially disappointing, that you could imagine only Wayne Rooney filling. To be so reliant on the condition of one man (Sir Alex Ferguson had asked that Rooney be excused due to a recent return to fitness for Manchester United) is unhealthy. While it is true that Argentina won the World Cup of 1986 because of Diego Maradona, expectations of Rooney must be kept within reason's bounds.

When, last week, I looked forward to the England midfield's tangle with the best in the world as a possible sign of convergence, I was premature. Carrick and Barry were driven too deep by the possessive skills epitomised by Xavi and Andres Iniesta and only the odd dash from Shaun Wright-Phillips relieved the gloom until Beckham came on and delivered the England pass of the night to Carlton Cole, whom Carlos Marchena denied.

According to Terry, the players had been told to "try and not let them play, get in their faces, the likes of Xavi and Iniesta''. But that worked for barely a quarter of the match and at half-time Capello further identified a failure to switch play to the right (Stewart Downing on the left was even less impressive than Carrick). But the main thing, the England captain added, was that Capello ''wanted us to press more'' and the players "didn't really stick to the game plan''.

That is part of the reason why the 14 months between England's next matches – a friendly at home to Slovakia, swiftly followed by the visit to Wembley on qualifying business of Ukraine – might be enough to bring about the necessary improvement. There is a new candour about the squad, a willingness to learn from Capello that amounts almost to the necessary (Capello has used the word advisedly) humility.

Even the press are entering into the spirit of the times by being restrained and constructive. A popular view that England should not attempt to challenge the likes of Spain at passing is misguided and simplistic – that a team can be both possessive and urgent has long since been demonstrated in Europe, not least by the great club sides of Milan and, before them, Liverpool – but I left Seville with the impression that things with England, as so often in football, are not as bad as they look.

Source: Telegraph