England’s friendly problem – How many more games will Capello have with his first choice players?

One defeat does not make you go from world-beaters to failures overnight. England may have lost in Ukraine, but eight wins from nine matches – including home and away wins over Croatia who were the top seeds in World Cup Qualifying Group Six – is a more than acceptable performance for a country who were at their lowest footballing ebb just two years ago. It should also be remembered that for Ukraine, the match on Saturday was a game they had to win, for England, it was not.

However, the defeat has raised more questions than answers, and has given Fabio Capello a problem ahead of South Africa next summer. Whilst the match against Belarus on Wednesday night is a competitive qualifier, it has nothing riding on it, and is in effect a friendly. For England, friendlies are all that remain prior to the World Cup finals starting next summer.

Brazil in November in the Middle East is the first of these, and more matches will be confirmed before the first ball is kicked in anger next summer. Whilst club managers reluctantly accept that players can be released for competitive international matches, the slightest hint of a hamstring pull, or a sprained ankle during an important stage of the domestic season, means that the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Steven Gerrard will be prohibited from joining up with their international teammates. Sir Alex Ferguson, for instance, is unlikely to allow Ferdinand to travel to Dubai for the Brazil match next month if he is not fully fit. If Frank Lampard or John Terry appear for England in a friendly, knowing that Chelsea have a crucial Champions League match around the corner, they are not going to fully commit to a tackle as they would do for a competitive qualifier.

The chances are, Capello will not be in a position to field his full strength England team again after Wednesday night, if indeed he knows what his strongest team is, until the pre-World Cup friendlies at the end of the domestic season in May. This may give fringe players such as Michael Turner at Sunderland and Gary Cahill at Bolton, the chance to feature for England and stake a claim for a place on the plane to South Africa, but it is not going to give players who do not play or train with each other on a regular basis, the chance to practice together as Capello would like.

Admittedly this is not a problem that will just affect England. The likes of Spain and Holland face the same problem, but with the uncertainty surrounding various positions in the England starting XI appearing no nearer to being clarified, the problem is more acute for Capello. Will he get the chance to give the likes of Emile Heskey and Carlton Cole a proper run out alongside Wayne Rooney to see what forms the best strike partnership? Will Glen Johnson get the opportunity to see if he can defend at the level of an international full-back before next summer? And will one of the goalkeeping contenders have the chance to show that they can be No1 in South Africa next summer with experience of playing behind the inevitable centre-back partnership of Ferdinand and Terry.

In a perverse way, countries such as Portugal and France, may benefit from being in the play-offs, as if successful, they will have played two more competitive games than most of their rivals, and the managers will be able to see which players can cope with immense pressure and perform. The top African countries such as the Ivory Coast and Ghana will also have the African Nations Cup at the start of next year, as ideal preparation for the competitive test that awaits in South Africa next summer.

The lack of a competitive matches before next June does not mean that England cannot win the World Cup. It is the same problem that affects most teams that qualify for all major championships. The main hope for Capello, is that he gets co-operation from club managers for friendly matches, and that most importantly of all, his key players such as Gerrard and Rooney, remain injury free ahead of finals next summer. Without the spine of the team who have helped England qualify with such ease, World Cup victory is not going to happen.

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