The Limey
Friday October 16th, 2009

Team Limey was basking in an unfamiliar relaxed state leading up to this week's final round of World Cup qualifiers, as its beloved England team safely qualified at the beginning of September with two games to spare.

That marked a drastic change from some of the nail-biting, angst-ridden, stress-inducing recent qualification (or lack of) experiences. Two of many that spring to mind are the "Wally with the Brolly" on the touch line as we failed miserably against Croatia in qualification for Euro 2008, and David Beckham's free-kick heroics against Greece that sneaked us into Japan/Korea 2002.

It has been all change in the England set-up in the 18 months since Fabio Capello took charge. Not just in the improvement in performances or in the ease of tournament qualification, or indeed, in the variety of facial hair that's been adorning Beckham's face (topped off with the Grizzly Adams number he sported against Belarus on Wednesday).

As soon as he walked through the door, Capello made his intentions clear with how he wanted things done. Gone was the use of cell phones, video games and the presence of WAGs while on international duty. In was the militarized wearing of team suits or track suits during meal times, and a wholesale change in the relationship between manager and players.

Contrast the manner in which former boss Steve McClaren would glean the smallest of plaudits from the most unimpressive of results, and the matey, almost awestruck treatment of the players, referring to them by their tabloidal nicknames, "JT," "Wazza," "Stevie G" and "Becks."

Despite defeating Belarus 3-0 on Wednesday, Capello was still critical in the performance and demanded improvement. After the game, the Italian veteran remarked that Beckham's being awarded Man of the Match for his 30-minute (admittedly highly effective) cameo was "like Obama winning the Nobel Prize after nine months as President." Quite the far cry from the matey approach adopted by McClaren.

So the players know who the boss is, but does the boss know the players who will be joining him on the plane to South Africa next June? With only five friendly matches between now and the World Cup in which to directly work with his squad, Capello will have to rely heavily on players' form in the Premier League this season. The Italian refuses to tip his hand.

"I have to check next April what the situation is," he told reporters. "Sometimes at the start of the season, the players are good. At the end of the season, they are tired. It is impossible to speak now about 23 players who will be with us in South Africa."

Despite the impressive qualifying campaign, with 56 different players used in his squads and with mistakes and potential weaknesses creeping into the last couple of qualifying matches, Capello has plenty of food for thought ahead of next summer.

Goalkeeper is possibly one of the most up-for-grabs positions. It's safe to say Ben Foster, David James and Robert Green will be the three goalkeepers in South Africa, barring exceptional seasons from Paul Robinson at Blackburn or Joe Hart at Birmingham City. However, those three keepers all have their issues.

At the beginning of the season, Foster was hailed by Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson as England's long-term solution. After Foster's numerous gaffes and indifferent performances for the Red Devils, Sir Alex has been noticeably quiet in his praise for the 26-year-old. James, arguably the most technically accomplished of the three, will be nearly 40 at the World Cup. Green, who once wore a pair of gloves adorned with the words "England's No. 5" after being consistently overlooked, became the first keeper to be sent off while on England duty in last Saturday's qualifying defeat away to Ukraine, denying him a golden opportunity to impress Capello.

The first-choice back four picks itself. Despite high-profile errors in recent games, Rio Ferdinand should rediscover the form that previously made him recognized as one the best center backs in the world. Alongside Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, John Terry is one of the first names on Capello's team sheet.

At left back, following a period of stuttering form, Ashley Cole is playing the best football of his career at Chelsea and, based on current form, is arguably the best left back in the world. Glen Johnson slots in at right back, with few other players with a realistic shot of ousting him. The Liverpool defender, excellent going forward, will have to learn to be more disciplined and improve his tackling when England comes up against the bigger sides.

In reserve, Matthew Upson and Joleon Lescott head the queue of center backs, with Jonathan Woodgate and Ledley King both better defenders than Upson, and Lescott likely to be spending the summer in the treatment room. Phil Jagielka of Everton could come in, given his flexibility to cover at right back as well as his natural position at center back. Wayne Bridge will fulfill his usual role of deputizing for Cole at left back.

Midfield is probably England's strongest area, giving Capello potentially his biggest headache as he attempts to whittle a list of about 15 players to probably eight or nine places in the squad. Lampard, Gerrard and Gareth Barry are definites. Joe Cole and Owen Hargreaves, two of the most impressive performers at Germany '06, also should feature if they return successfully from respective long-term injuries.

Michael Carrick, Jermaine Jenas and James Milner are realistically vying for one place, and it's likely that one of Sean Wright-Phillips, Aaron Lennon and Ashley Young will be sacrificed to make space for the bearded Beckham. It's highly unlikely Beckham would start any matches at the World Cup, but to have the best dead-ball deliverer in the world as an option is something Capello cannot overlook. The Italian has made it clear that Beckham's place is dependent on him securing a return to AC Milan in the second half of the season.

In attack, the main question is who will partner with Rooney. Capello has made it clear with his selections that he likes to pair the United bulldog with a big target man. Emile Heskey is currently the manager's favored choice, but Heskey is getting more minutes for England than at Aston Villa, and is making noises about a move away from Villa Park in order to preserve his place in the England team.

Peter Crouch has often been seen by Capello, and indeed by previous managers, as a "Plan B" option, a player who is brought in if a change in approach is needed. Crouch's beanpole presence changes the way the team plays and creates problems for opposition defenders. His scoring record for the Three Lions is undoubted and impressive, with 18 in 35 matches and seven in his last six starts, the same number of goals Heskey has scored in his entire England career. Crouch quite rightly feels that this record warrants his place in the starting lineup, saying, "I would prefer to be 'Plan A' than 'Plan B'" after his brace against Belarus.

In defense of Heskey, his game is about more than goals. Capello feels the enhancement in Rooney's game as a result of Heskey's strength and holdup play is worth more than the individual goal records of Heskey's rivals. Carlton Cole is another big target man who has consistently been in Capello's squads and will hope for another fruitful season at West Ham. In reality, only two of Crouch, Heskey and Cole will be in the final 23.

Behind Rooney, Jermain Defoe's blistering start for Tottenham this season makes him first reserve. One of a fit again Theo Walcott, Darren Bent, Gabriel Agbonlahor or even Michael Owen is likely to be in the squad. Of those, Walcott is most likely to be given the nod. However, the Arsenal youngster will have to have a sustained injury-free period in the months leading up to the tournament, something he has failed to do over the last two seasons.

If England is to win a major tournament, this will be arguably its biggest chance for a long time. The phrase "Golden Generation," coined by a former Football Association chief executive to describe a crop of players including Terry, Gerrard, Beckham, Ferdinand and Lampard, has been overused in the last few years. This week, Lampard told an England press conference that the phrase has become something of a weight around their neck: "The whole 'Golden Generation' thing is quite frustrating for us players. They are very talented individuals, but we have not made the most of it."

This crop of players -- with the exception of Beckham -- are undoubted starters in England's first XI and either will have ended or will be approaching the end of their international careers by the time of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. These will be big holes to fill, and at the moment, there isn't a plethora of pegs coming through that look capable of filling them.

Do you agree or disagree with our views on Capello's likely squad for next June's football footballing fiesta? Let us know at the usual address:

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