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England 2 - 1 Slovenia

Still no answer to Capello's No.1 dilemma

September 5, 2009
By Harry Harris

Can England win the World Cup in South Africa without a world-class goalkeeper? Answer: No. Please do let me know if you disagree.

Robert Green, England
GettyImagesRobert Green played the full ninety minutes for England but failed to convince with a risky handball
I cannot believe there will be that many dissenting voices, but you never know. For my money this is the current biggest headache for Fabio Capello.

Yet, the usual hysteria about England is not far away. Perhaps not after putting Slovenia to the sword, but it will be there if England crack Croatia and qualify on Wednesday back at Wembley. I know one journalist who for many years has predicted that England will win the World Cup every time they compete in the finals. The strategy is that it is a popular piece of jingosim journalism, and maybe one day he might get his forecast right.

Expect it all again, if England put on a show against Croatia. However, there is a perilous flaw in England's camp. The predictable outcome against Slovenia told us little to nothing about the parlous state of English football's lack of a safe pair of hands between the sticks.

I was there as a fan when Gordon Banks was England's No.1 and the nation celebrated in 1966. I was there as the Daily Mirror's chief football writer when Peter Shilton was the world-class keeper as England came closest to winning it again in 1990.

David James is England's current No.1 but his prolonged absence has given Robert Green his big opportunity. Regrettably, he had so little to do to make a real assessment, and the little he did was worrying. A handball outside of the area could have earned him a red card.

Knowing Capello, that could have been enough to spell the end of the Green experiment. But the England coach has no choice other than to keep faith with Green for the vital tie with Croatia, hence the West Ham keeper stayed on for the second half to survive a multitude of substitutions.

To be fair to Green, I don't level any blame on him for England's failure to keep a clean sheet. Another big worry is that while Glen Johnson is such a threat going forward with a lethal long-range shot, he is, and has always been, vulnerable in defence. This is something that Capello will try to iron out, and the Italian is the man for that job.

James, though, remains risky. Once he was known as "Calamity James", though he has eradicated the ludicrous errors and rushes of blood to a certain extent. But can he be trusted to carry the hopes of the nation into South Africa, when England inevitably qualify?

Well, we are going to have an exciting, edge-of-the-seat experience with England in South Africa with James in goal, and Wayne Rooney in attack.

A Rooney lunge earned such a dubious penalty, converted by Frank Lampard, and got the defender a yellow card, and his team a penalty. It could easily have been the other way round, a yellow for Rooney. His trigger-happy temperament will be exploited even more ruthlessly when the stakes become greater and England progress.

Rooney is very much key to any England success in South Africa. He is still England's most gifted attacking player, while Gerrard and Lampard are full of goals once Capello has unlocked the key to ensure they play well together on a far more consistent level. He's getting there, but it's a slow process, and that is why you won't find Capello making any rash predictions about England's chances in South Africa.

Don't get me wrong, I am not knocking England by pin-pointing their greatest weakness. I believe that there is a great opportunity under Capello to progress to the semi-finals in a country where the winter conditions will ensure England are not forced to abandon a high tempo in their game because of any excessive heat and humidity.

Jermain Defoe is on fire, but has been so as Capello's impact goalscorer coming off the bench. The call for him to start is now immense, and, let's face it, Emile Heskey has had his day.

So, come on and give Defoe his big chance in the starting line up. He deserves it, and I am sure Capello has a big dilemma because he won't want to lessen the impact Defoe makes when he comes off the bench after a defence has had to endure the far greater physical presence of Heskey.

I have a feeling England are going to get to the final in South Africa, but if, as I hope, they end up confronting Brazil, they will need a super-human display from James, if indeed, as I expect, the Portsmouth keeper is still England's No.1.

Fleet Street veteran Harry Harris has twice won the British Sports Journalist of the Year award.