Young stars benefit from Capello's qualities
All hail Don Fabio.
In ending Croatia's impregnability in Zagreb, England put in a performance unmatched since Munich in 2001. In doing so Fabio Capello's team settled English scores past and gave an apathetic nation a sense of belief, not only in their team, but also its capability to get the best out of young talent.
Prior to the World Cup qualifier, Croatia coach Slaven Bilic had spoken of his fear that Capello had the class as a coach to upset the odds, remembering he had done just that when an understrength AC Milan team destroyed Barcelona's 'Dream Team' in the 1994 European Cup Final. Bilic obviously knows his football history. His Croatian team, whose qualities and Indian sign over England made them the fifth-ranked team in the world, were put to the sword in a fashion very similar to Barca on that fabled Athens night.
Bilic's charges were never able to settle as Capello's pressing football, adapted for the more prosaic English style, once again yielded results when it most mattered, while also giving his best and most creative players the chance to shine.
It seems almost strange to have the chance to hail a great England footballing performance. Not since Euro 2004 and the blossoming of Wayne Rooney has the England fan been able to enjoy their team's spirit, enterprise and winning mentality. After such a long wait, Zagreb gave them just that chance.
In Theo Walcott, England may have a star to match that Rooney vintage of four years ago. And at the ripe old age of 22, they still have Rooney, who some have recently been writing off as a lost talent. He is found, having played his best game for his country since that broken foot in Portugal ended England's hopes. Rooney pulled the strings in a fashion that most had expected from Luka Modric.
Modric and team-mates were never granted space and time by England's organised midfield. For the headlining pair to profit required the structure of an England team set up to deny a Croatian use of angles that twice humiliated Steve McClaren's team.
Not for Capello the negativity and stupidity of 3-5-2. The Italian knows that the English game is at its best when played at a tempo that does not allow the opposition to compose themselves. Thus did he set out his stall in an old-style 4-4-2 formation that gave his team a solidity not at all reminiscent of the friendlies with which he began his reign.
Walcott's first goal came fortuitously, being perhaps the Arsenal teenager's first touch that showed any sort of control of a football. He had previously looked nervous but his team-mates had clearly been told by Capello to make use of his pace. Walcott's presence, and that of Joe Cole, gave overlapping full-backs Corluka and Pranjic little chance to attack down the flanks and add support to the Croat midfield and forwards. Once Walcott had his chance, he took it. His confidence, and that of his team-mates, flowed from there.
Rooney took longer to settle into the game, his best first-half work coming as the auxiliary defender that many have criticised him for being far too regularly. Once Robert Kovac had been rightly given marching orders, Rooney was able to take the rightful place of playing off the excellent Emile Heskey.
Within ten minutes of Kovac's crude elbow on Cole, Rooney had put the game beyond Croatia by first setting up Walcott for a doppleganger second and then scoring a goal of his own, the result of team-play built on burgeoning confidence. His finish was vintage Rooney - the 2004 kind. Has Capello has found the answer to the Rooney riddle too?
We shall see. For the moment, and with such a win, Capello is able to make us forget those turgid friendlies as anything but training exercises and bury the over-the-top reactions to a functional yet valuable 2-0 win over Andorra.
Yet while the media and fans may get carried away, it is all but assured that Capello will not be doing so. He is made - and paid - to win vital matches. The signs are there that he can make his players believe they are too.