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Monday, August 24, 2009
ESPNsoccernet: August 25, 6:01 PM UK
England to get its kicks like '66?

Ravi Ubha

Mention 1966 in England, and one thing comes to mind.

No, it isn't the Beatles releasing the iconic rock album "Revolver," which spawned classics "Eleanor Rigby" and "Yellow Submarine." Rather, it's the national team claiming the World Cup for the first, and only, time on home soil. That England downed archrival West Germany in the final at hallowed Wembley that year, aided by a controversial linesman's call, made it all the better. Such a landmark moment it was that some 40 years later "Sixty Six," recounting those glory days, hit cinemas in Blighty.

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Imagine the ensuing distress.

England, despite possessing some of the game's most talented players, hasn't snatched a major title since, reaching the semifinals of a World Cup exactly once, in 1990. Four years later, the almost unthinkable happened -- failure to qualify -- and in 2007, another deep trough: Led by the much-maligned Steve McClaren, the Three Lions bumbled their way through qualifying and missed out on the European Championships.

"They have such huge expectations from their fans to do well, and I think over the last few years maybe the expectation is more than the team could ever achieve," Kasey Keller, the standout U.S. goalkeeper who spent more than 10 years playing in England, said in a phone interview.

Well, under Fabio Capello -- the sage, bespectacled Italian -- a nation is wildly expectant again. England has romped through World Cup qualifying and, according to bookmaker William Hill, is the fourth favorite -- ahead of the likes of defending champions Italy and perennial threat Germany -- to win it all in South Africa next summer. Spain, Brazil and Argentina head the pack.

"I'm confident this time," Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard, a vital component in England's quest, recently told reporters. "We're playing as well as we have done for a long time. There's a real confidence and real togetherness about the group."

Only a monumental collapse prevents Lampard and company from topping the group and earning a direct spot into the 32-team tournament. Despite relentless debate about how to combine Lampard and Liverpool's Steven Gerrard, injuries to strikers, inexperience on the right side of midfield and question marks in goal, England leads Croatia by a sizable 10 points in Group 6.

The same Croatian club sent England into mourning on Nov. 21, 2007. At a rain-soaked Wembley (the newer version), the visitors prevailed 3-2, allowing Russia to proceed to Euro 2008 at England's expense. Croatia was already in. McClaren's bold decisions to start 'keeper Scott Carson, inexperienced at the international level, and bench David Beckham backfired. Carson blundered horribly on the first goal and Becks excelled when McClaren brought him in as a substitute. McClaren predictably lost his job and is now in relative exile in the Eredivisie.

In came Capello, the second time England's oft-beleaguered Football Association opted for a foreigner. It would have been three in a row had the F.A. gotten its man in Portugal's Luiz Felipe Scolari, instead of McClaren, to succeed Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson in the wake of a disappointing quarterfinal showing at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Penalties, again, felled England.

Capello -- whose résumé includes coaching Real Madrid, A.C. Milan and Juventus -- is no-nonsense, a strict disciplinarian averse to making headlines for the wrong reasons. Eriksson often courted controversy, belying his stoic persona.

Unlike Eriksson and McClaren, Capello doesn't play favorites when picking his squad -- Eriksson adored Beckham -- and addresses players by their surnames, not their nicknames (a la McClaren).

WAGs, who caused a media circus in Germany, are banned from the team hotel. Lateness prompts repercussions. Players come and go together for meals. On the field, Capello's noted Italian steel is evident. England has conceded just four goals in seven qualifiers and last September hammered Croatia on the road 4-1.

"He's instilled a confidence, a professionalism and brought discipline," former England midfielder John Barnes, one of the best players of his generation, said in a phone interview. "But more importantly, everyone is behind him. There's a positive, feel-good factor to the England camp now."

Yet all that can change quickly, especially in England, driven by its ferocious tabloids. Barnes, currently the manager at Tranmere, acknowledged Capello's contributions but added that the 63-year-old has really "done nothing yet.

"They haven't qualified yet, but will," Barnes said. "But whenever England have qualified, they've got to the quarterfinals, to the semifinals, then gone out. I don't think they will win it, and I don't think they are favorites to win it. We have to be realistic.

"If England plays Brazil in the semifinals and both play to their maximum, Brazil will win. It's that simple. But if Brazil underperforms and England performs, then England can win."

One thing's for sure: Wayne Rooney needs to be fit. Simply put, England is one team with the talismanic striker and another without him. An injury deprived Rooney of a spot against Croatia in the 3-2 defeat and severely hampered his performance at the 2006 showpiece.

Rooney, still just 23, needs to keep his combustible temper in check, too. He was sent off against Portugal in the World Cup three years ago, handicapping his teammates -- and not for the first time. Capello will no doubt be keeping an eye on Rooney's partnership with the fading Michael Owen at Manchester United. If the duo clicks, there's no way Capello can continue to bypass Owen. The latter was omitted from Wednesday's mouthwatering friendly against the Dutch. Led by lethal finisher Jermain Defoe, England rallied for a 2-2 tie in Amsterdam.

Lampard and Gerrard score with ease in the Premier League, though internationally it's a different matter. Lampard blows hot and cold, and Gerrard seems wasted on the left side of midfield. His most potent spot lies behind the main striker, a position he occupied much of last season at Anfield. Problem is, Lampard also prospers there.

"They really need to have the right team on the field, and not just the biggest names," Keller said. "It's poised to be a very good opportunity for England to possibly go all the way. But at the same time, you're looking at a whole lot of talent in a few other countries."

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.




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