Expectations are high for England’s upcoming game against Croatia, and Fabio Capello has called on 24 of the country’s finest to collect the three points against Slaven Bilic’s side which will confirm qualification for the 2010 World Cup. As a warm up for that game, Slovenia come to England to play in a friendly match which will see Capello perfect the tactics designed to gun down the Croats. While Slovenia will be a relatively unknown prospect, England and Croatia are certainly no strangers. Having extinguished the Three Lions hopes of qualification for Euro 2008 with a 3-2 win at Wembley two years ago, revenge was sweet when a Theo Walcott inspired performance saw England become the first team to beat Croatia in a competitive match on home soil, coming away from Zagreb with a a resounding 4-1 win almost a year ago.
Fabio Capello will no doubt be wary of a backlash however, and will prepare his squad for a tough test. Focus and concentration are key, but certain Croatian sources are trying to disrupt the English preparations with accusations of misdoing. Croatian Football Federation president Vlatko Markovic believes the timing of Tottenham and Croatia midfielder Luka Modric’s injury is no coincidence, and foul play is afoot: “It is terrible what has happened to us. Maybe someone has something against us and our national team. In the past year, they [English footballers] have injured Eduardo and now the same has happened to Luka Modric. I can only ask whether someone did it deliberately on the eve of the game with England. I can only ask myself whether it is a coincidence or not.”
Coupled with Eduardo’s injury, albeit after England’s Euro 2008 dream had been ended, it is understandable why Croatia may feel slightly aggrieved. But to start brandishing conspiracy theories the week before a crucial game is surely a deliberate attempt to disrupt the psychological preparation in the England camp. Perhaps Markovic’s aim is to draw the referee’s close attention to England’s tackling on the night, thus potentially putting players in two minds as whether or not to challenge for a certain ball. We shall never know, but with England keen to banish all demons from that wretched night two years ago, his comments will hopefully only further inspire the national team to victory, and not have the disruptive effect he wants to achieve. With Capello in charge, the nation should be confident that he will let only football do the talking.
Before concentrating fully on the Croatia game, Slovenia will provide the opponents for a friendly on Saturday. Although all 24 players reported for training on the first day of meeting, Wes Brown, and more crucially, John Terry, have picked up slight knocks since. Bolton’s Gary Cahill has been called up as cover after an impressive season last year. While Brown’s possible exclusion is disappointing, whether or not he would start either game is up for debate anyway, with Glen Johnson having started life at Liverpool in scintillating form. Captain, Terry’s absence on the other hand would be a massive blow for England. The emphasis is on the word ‘slight’, but it is still doubtful that Terry will feature against Slovenia if there is any chance of him aggravating the injury. The Chelsea skipper is one of the most influential players for both club and country, and fans and players alike will be hoping for a speedy recovery in time to face Croatia.
From players in the squad, to those still out of it, and more speculation that Michael Owen will not play for England while Capello is at the helm. Despite a positive start to his Manchester United career, scoring a fine goal at Wigan, his exclusion is seemingly further evidence of his place in the pecking order. Peter Crouch is the man who has benefited, despite not starting a league game for Spurs this season, while another Spurs striker, Jermain Defoe, is apparently growing weary that Owen is still receiving a good deal of attention despite being overlooked again: “It’s like if my name gets mentioned Michael Owen’s has got to get mentioned as well. That is sometimes frustrating. Michael Owen is a great player but it is not that if I’m in the squad he’s not, or that if he is in the squad, I’m not. It would be nice to get away from it.” claimed a frustrated Defoe.
While Owen’s international record is impressive, it would be beneficial for England if the media concentrate on, and more importantly, encourage the strikers who are selected, rather than inflicting any unnecessary added pressure. Owen will get his chance if he can score enough goals at club level, but for now the nation needs to get behind the current squad and roar them to a vital victory.
On a final note, England’s first choice left back Ashley Cole has just joined John Terry in signing a new deal at Chelsea, and what better way to celebrate than with an impressive display for his country in the next two games. Confidence is running high throughout the squad, and Capello will be eager to have wrapped up qualification after the Croatia game. Lessons have been learnt from last time, and South Africa surely beckons.