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England 5-1 Croatia

Victorious England still need a Plan B

September 9, 2009
By Harry Harris

Wayne Rooney doesn't sing the national anthem, but when he is on song then England are genuine World Cup contenders.

Wayne Rooney, England
GettyImagesHis late goal was an afterthought but Wayne Rooney was still England's pivotal attacker.
Fabio Capello will fine-tune the team before it reaches South Africa, and has a couple of problems to resolve, not the least the No.1 jersey. But there is no question that Rooney is England's No.1 forward.

The big problem is that England just do not have a Plan B. And when Rooney has been injured in a major tournament before, England's chances fell apart.

Capello showed his hand with the selection of Emile Heskey, instead of the on-fire Jermain Defoe. The Italian coach favours a big target man to take the battering from the defence to allow Rooney more freedom to drop deep and roam to find space.

Rooney was nowhere near the most eye-catching player in the first half when England romped to a two-goal lead, while scoring the fifth was a gimme by the keeper; he looked almost embarrassed to take it. But Rooney is the leading scorer in the qualification goalscorers' list, and England may need to boast the winner of the Golden Boot in South Africa to stand any chance of landing the glittering prize.

Yet, study the playbacks, the video confirming to Capello there is still much to improve upon, and Rooney is always in the picture whenever England are at their best. It was one of many deft touches from Rooney that put Gareth Barry in possession as England built up a formidably impressive move that led to Lennon's chance to cross for Gerrard to score the decisive second.

But Heskey has become a non-goalscoring striker, and despite all his attributes as the buffer for Rooney, this isn't the formula to win a World Cup.

England cannot rely on Rooney, as the best teams, when the big chips are down, will mark him much more carefully, wind him up a touch more effectively. And Rooney does live on a short fuse.

The striker has scored half of his ten goals in a year for England when Heskey has worn the No.9 shirt, but Capello's early qualification, the first time England have managed it with two games to spare, provides an unprecedented opportunity to experiment.

And expect plenty of surprises. Capello enjoys plucking something out of nothing, and he will go for something surprising, maybe in goal and certainly in attack as he searches for a more potent combination up front.

One of the options is to see how he could accommodate Defoe with Rooney and possibly a more subtle centre-forward, a player with strength and pace, but who, unlike Heskey can also finish. Carlton Cole has all the attributes apart from the conviction that he can finish at the very highest level. There are a few months to go for Cole to prove otherwise.

But Capello is sure to attempt to look beyond the obvious to find a solution, and he will be meticulous in that devotion to unleash upon the world an England team that might already be Europe's top goalscorers in qualification, but who could turn up in South Africa with more than just Rooney to rely on, and a means of integrating Defoe into the attack.

Who knows, he might even give Michael Owen a go if England's leading goalscorer suddenly re-discovers his form with Manchester United. Now that would be a shock.

No apologies for flagging up the negative aspects after a night of such celebration at England strolling to the finals instead of their usual penchant for leaving it to a knife-edge finish.

Such jubilation will heighten up the usual media frenzy anticipating the 20,000-plus England supporters travelling to the other side of the world in the hope of finally seeing their team prevail. But realism will bite into Capello's preparations alright, and he will be under no illusions about the enormity of the task ahead.

Capello is another whose lips do not move when the national anthem is played, and his broken English is far from his promise of learning the language, but he might find himself as one of the nation's biggest ever heroes if he can land the World Cup by overcoming such deep problems.

There will be a letter from the Queen and the freedom of the country if the Italian can become the first foreign coach to lead England to glory in the World Cup. That would certainly be a shock to the system to those little Englanders who have always opposed a foreign coach in charge of the national football team.

He might even learn the national anthem by next July.

• Harry Harris has twice won the British Sports Journalist of the Year award. His book Down Memory Lane is now available.