Reserves rally in Rooney absence
It is the doomsday scenario, the eventuality that dare not be considered. Yet England without Wayne Rooney is a possibility that has to be acknowledged. As with 2006 and the fractured metatarsal at Stamford Bridge, a nation bates its breath at news of any injury to Manchester United's key striker.
Precautions taken on a calf injury and the visit of Belarus provided a flavour of life without Wayne and though Belarus were eased away, that taste was something akin to an underpowered lager or an artificially sweetened tea; OK but just not the same.
Fabio Capello will have been glad of being granted an extra practice match to shuffle his options but after this untesting affair he will privately still be crossing everything he can in hope that a fine-tuned Rooney boards the plane to South Africa.
Gabriel Agbonlahor recently told ESPN that he was the man who provided the japes in the Aston Villa dressing room. His somewhat stilted delivery of this belied his status as a prankster, but the visit of Belarus gave him the chance to prove to Capello that he could be the joker in England's pack. Foot-speed alone will not guarantee a World Cup finals place but his early supply of a goal for Peter Crouch via a pacy burst may have caused the absent Jermain Defoe to shuffle nervously in the cushioned seats of his home cinema. However, that first cut was the deepest as far as the young Brummie was concerned and his replacement by Carlton Cole on 65 minutes confirmed that Capello is considering other suitors.
Agbonlahor was not alone in Capello's starting line-up in having something to prove. Ben Foster had been a hostage to fortune when handed England's goalkeeping jersey; he would surely have been licking his wounds in Manchester had not, first, Robert Green been sent off in Dnipropetrovsk and then David James sustained a knee injury when his performance in Ukraine had most having the veteran reclaiming the No.1 jersey. As expected, Foster faced few tests of the nerves he has too often displayed in a United shirt though a fine clawing away of a goalbound Sergei Omelyanchuk effort will have settled them. Should he play in South Africa, he can expect to be kept far busier.
An injury to Steven Gerrard gave Shaun Wright-Phillips a chance to prove his adaptability and that England have options from the left of midfield and a well-aimed goal for England's second was reward for an endeavour that Capello clearly appreciated. Unlike Agbonlahor he was granted a full ninety minutes to prove himself.
Two more experienced reserves in Wayne Bridge and Crouch were given chances in a match competitive only by definition. With England's next big date being the World Cup finals draw on December 4, the defeat of Belarus served as an act of jostling for position for those less sure of a first-class ticket to South Africa in June. Crouch's goal and his continual making a nuisance of himself have long marked his card as a "Plan B" and a helpful knack of scoring - these were his 17th and 18th goals in 35 internationals - will hardly dissuade Capello of this though his post-match press conference saw the coach remain guarded on a player who has scored so freely. He offered only "I know very well Peter Crouch".
For a man often lavished with the label of man to win at all costs, Capello had taken defeat among the flares and industrial towers of the Ukraine seemingly more lightly than most would expect yet had set out for this match to be a ninth win in ten qualifiers and at times showed visible frustration at his players. "There were some good things, some not so good. It's something the players know, but those ideas are for us," he said. "I'm not happy because we had to wait too many times to win back the ball."
That a couple of his reserves scored the goals will not have lessened the questions about how he can perform without his brightest star, the young man who provides the spark and impetus he implores and demands from his team.
ENGLAND VERDICT: A well-deserved lap of honour was taken by the players. For the 15 or so players sure of a place in Capello's 23-man squad, the rest of the season will take place with one eye on June, no matter what their respective club managers will ask of them. A group of ten or more, not all of them able or picked to play at Wembley, will hope their domestic season and a handful of friendlies can convince the Italian who holds their destiny in their hands.
MAN OF THE MATCH? David Beckham, granted just 32 minutes, deserved that accolade according to the match sponsors, to the bemusement of just about everybody else, including Fabio Capello who joked that he had told Beckham that his surprise award was like "Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize after just eight months as president".
BELARUS VERDICT: With Alexander Hleb absent the only name that stood out for the visitors was Igor Shitov in midfield. The England fans were remiss not to regale him with "you're Shitov, and you know you are". A missed opportunity though top marks for friendliness must go to coach Bernd Stange who confided that Capello had told him that he was going for "the cup". Stange then stated his belief that his counterpart could achieve his aim before wishing the press corps "good luck" on his way out.
ARMED FORCES: A second visit to Wembley this season for your correspondent yielded a second display of pre-match military fanfare. A group of soldiers were chosen to wave the national flags of the two teams. Coupled with the usual overblown build-up from the tannoy announcer, the prelude to this occasion resembled less a football match than the beginning of a totalitarian rally.
FACES IN THE CROWD: To no-one's particular surprise, Wayne Rooney had travelled down to the match to show support for his colleagues. Less expected was the watching brief employed by Michael Owen, a man approaching England's sixth, seventh or even eighth-choice striker. He perhaps hoped his visibility could jog the memory of Capello, who is yet to be impressed by two goals and an extended spell of similarly sedentary activity on Manchester United's bench. Another forgotten Owen - Hargreaves - was working as a TV pundit.