Martin Samuel: Find a way to rein in Spain and win World Cup, Fabio
For English football, the one positive to come out of the Champions League final is that Fabio Capello now has 13 months to prepare for the match that will, we hope, define his first tournament as England manager. To win the World Cup in South Africa, he must devise a way to beat Spain, to frustrate their dynamic midfield players in a way Manchester United could not. It does not have to be pretty; it may even attract the same haughty criticism levelled at Chelsea after their Champions League semi-final games with Barcelona this season, but any team that does not reach Africa with a cogent plan to defeat the champions of Europe is not going home with the trophy. It is not enough to presume the job will be done by another manager. Spain are too strong for that. And despite the mantra that football must be taken one game at a time, to start thinking about it three days before the event would be too late. The players do not even have to know they are preparing for Spain, providing Capello is drilling them in a way that can be quickly implemented if a date with the strongest national team in the world is England's destiny. Before the European Championship in 1996, Terry Venables, the then England manager, devoted a significant portion of his time to watching Holland, even before they were drawn in his group. He scouted the Ajax team of Louis van Gaal, in European matches and in training, and he devised the game-plan that ended with a 4-1 win at Wembley, the high water mark for modern England teams until the 4-1 victory in Zagreb against Croatia under Capello. The 5-1 win over Germany in Munich was a stunning result, but the football in the other matches was better. Venables saw Guus Hiddink's young Dutch team as the biggest threat, which was a personal hunch, but this time there is no doubting where the danger to English ambition lies. Spain are the best national team in the world right now, and Barcelona the best club side, and both dance to the midfield rhythm created by Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez. That Barcelona employ three foreign players as their forward line barely matters, because at national level those duties are handed to Fernando Torres, David Villa and David Silva, and Spain barely skip a beat. Where France were at the turn of the millennium, Spain are now, with a group of players so strong that Cesc Fabregas is on the bench. Remember how, during Euro 2008, there was astonishment that Fabregas was only a substitute? Mystery solved. I remember sitting with George Graham, the former Arsenal manager, watching Bordeaux in a UEFA Cup semi-final, 13 years ago. After 10 minutes, he pointed to the young No 10. 'He is the reason Eric Cantona does not get into the France team,' said Graham. The name? Zinedine Zidane. In time we all came to understand; even Eric, probably. Zidane became the best in the world, yet what makes Spain such a threat is that they do not have the single great player acting as the fulcrum of the team. While Lionel Messi of Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal contest individual honours, Spain have something more potent: a team, a philosophy. After 18 months in the job, Capello surely has all the information he needs on English footballers. It may be better if he spent a few weeks in Barcelona next season, observing how the world's greatest midfield plans to win the World Cup and plotting the way to stop that. There is no excuse for being caught unaware this time. The prospective owner of Portsmouth, Dr Sulaiman Al Fahim, has taken on a leading PR firm to avoid a repeat of the embarrassing circumstances of the Manchester City takeover, when he spoke on behalf of the new board, gauchely linked the club with a wish-list of unobtainable star players and was promptly sacked. Of course, the same function could be performed more cheaply with the acquisition of Post-it Notes, one of which could be affixed to Al Fahim's alarm clock each day, bearing the simple message, 'Shut up about Lionel Messi'. Still, if this is the frugal way money is to be spent by the new regime at Portsmouth, expect a bottleneck of agents en route to Fratton Park. No surprise that Sven Goran Eriksson is the first name to be linked. He could always see one coming. Barca blow is not a KO for United For the very best teams, football is increasingly like championship boxing. Lose one big fight and you are finished. Overnight, last Wednesday, Manchester United went from being hailed the greatest team this country has produced to one in desperate need of an overhaul, under the stewardship of a manager who is past his best and should seriously think about packing it in. Barcelona exposed flaws in United, the way they have exposed flaws in many teams this season. Chelsea did best against them by playing a very specific way, but Sir Alex Ferguson (right) is without the same degree of physical presence and athleticism in his midfield. United's strengths lie elsewhere. He did not have the same option as Guus Hiddink, the Chelsea manager. Ferguson will conduct his own inquest during the summer, no doubt, and will be alarmed at being so ruthlessly exposed by Barcelona and mindful of an unimpressive league record against the elite clubs. United lost home and away to Liverpool and won just a single game against the top four, defeating a broken Chelsea at Old Trafford. The humbling of Arsenal over two legs in the Champions League was not reflected domestically, losing away and drawing at home. So, as always, there is work to be done, but not the major reconstruction suggested in some quarters. The wealth of the Champions League has created a band of super clubs who are no longer allowed to lose. In the way a fighter is said to be washed up after one bad night, so defeat in a single showpiece game now represents disaster for a club such as Manchester United, with recommendations for wholesale team changes and talk of the end of Ferguson's tenure. It was a very bad night and his team took one hell of beating, but let us not get carried away. Right now, there is no club better equipped to win the Barclays Premier League next season and, if successful, that would mean a history-making fourth consecutive title. Every club in the world would swap with Ferguson: bar one. There is no shame in that, nor any reason to tear down all that has been so painstakingly built. April 18, 2009, was a big date for Theo Walcott. It was the only day this year that he played 90 minutes for Arsenal, in the FA Cup semi-final with Chelsea. Walcott would have to go back more than six months for the previous time that happened. Indeed, since November 15, 2008, against Aston Villa, he has started only 13 matches and made four substitute appearances. So the idea that he could be left burned out by playing for England in two full internationals and then going off to compete in the European Under 21 Championship this summer is preposterous. If anything, Walcott needs more games. Only in this dictatorship of club self-interests would there even be controversy about his selection. On the Continent, the naming of a player talented enough to represent the full team, but young enough to give a vital boost to the Under 21s, would pass without comment. This is probably why, in 25 years since England last won this tournament, the country of Fabio Capello has done it five times. And while we're at it.... It's an Almaty long trip for Ferdinand Rio Ferdinand has been declared fit for England's World Cup qualifying matches against Kazakhstan and Andorra. This is puzzling. He struggled in Rome and looked tentative and uncomfortable for much of the match. Yes, he was up against the most potent forward line in the world and there is not much chance of a repeat in Almaty or at Wembley next week, but surely that is even more reason to give the man a rest. The last thing Ferdinand needs is two more games and a longhaul flight to the most remote destination in the UEFA qualifying sector. Fabio Capello, the England manager, is right to be firm on player selection and there is no complaint from Manchester United. Even so, it seems rather unnecessary. Why not let Ferdinand keep a little energy in the bank? It is going to be a very long season for a player who turns 31 in November. Had Michael Owen started for Newcastle United last week and scored, or even looked sharp, he would have been named in the England squad to play Kazakhstan and Andorra. Fabio Capello is only too aware that his biggest weakness is his forward line. It is presumed that if Owen can negotiate a move to a significant club, such as Everton, and complete a full pre-season, he will be back in the frame. Even Capello is hoping against hope that this is the case. His worst case scenario, however, is that his first impressions of Owen were correct. For once, the England manager desperately wants to be proven wrong. Flavio Briatore, the increasingly ludicrous owner of Queens Park Rangers and the man who brought new meaning to the phrase Manager of the Month, has announced with no apparent irony that he wishes to be assessed over the long term. 'I have only had a short time in football and now is the not the time to judge me,' he says. Briatore is not quite so tardy when it comes to judging others, however. He is soon to appoint his seventh manager in 20 months and the long service award since his tenure began is held by Luigi De Canio with 35 games. Mick Harford and John Gregory did not make it to double figures, Iain Dowie lasted 15 matches and Paulo Sousa 26. He may not like it but, within football, the judgment on Briatore is very much in. It rhymes with hillock. Mess it up again and lose Shearer, Ashley Mike Ashley, owner of Newcastle United, appears to have put the cart before the horse in his observation that he has lost his money and made terrible decisions. Surely, the terrible decisions are the reason he has lost his money. And they continue with the news the club is to be put up for sale, which Ashley has chosen to announce in the middle of negotiations to secure Alan Shearer as manager. Shearer remains Newcastle's best hope, but if he ran a mile from this morass of bad ideas and thoughtless executive management, who could truly blame him? Subscribing yet again to the philosophy of live and don't learn, Real Madrid are said to be responding to the 6-2 defeat by Barcelona by making summer bids for Cristiano Ronaldo, Franck Ribery and Kaka. Presumably, the plan is to win 7-6 next season. Aleksandr Hleb said that most players left Arsenal for financial reasons. Now he wants out of Barcelona after being spectator at the Champions League final. It turns out money isn't everything. For a player of Hleb's ability, it never should have been.
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