Since the start of his England career, Fabio Capello has stated that he will pick his squad on the basis of the player’s Premier League performances with the onus on the players to show the Italian they deserve a place in the squad. However, after qualifying so impressively for the World Cup, with eight wins out of eight, it has become clear that Capello has a clear idea of what his starting XI will be, and that Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey will be leading it.
In four of the last five games, Rooney and Heskey have been partnered up front, and they are now both considered as certainties for South Africa. Despite not even being able to get into the Aston Villa first team, Heskey is a favourite of Capello and seems to be an integral part of the Italian’s system, with Capello stating after the Croatia game: “He is really important to the system we play, both in terms of our movement and the way we press to win the ball back. I accept he is not the greatest finisher. But the others can do it. If he opens the door, they will arrive.” Heskey and Rooney both possess immense work-rate, and with Heskey’s physical presence and Rooney’s determination off the ball, they prove more than a handful for defenders. Heskey can hold up the ball and wait for others to take up their positions, whilst Rooney can drift out wide and take on defenders a lot more than his strike partner. With Heskey in the team, as Capello states, his movement provides space for midfielders Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard to move into, players who can both finish.
Capello also seems to have an idea of who will be back-up to these two, with Jermain Defoe and Carlton Cole seen as current favourites to join them in South Africa. Defoe’s start to this season had been more than impressive and he has certainly given himself a great chance of making it next summer. He is arguably, after Rooney, England’s hottest striker right now, and has even proven his goal-scoring credentials for England with five goals in his last six appearances. Defoe, however, it can be argued is too alike to Rooney. Capello seems to prefer having a big, strong striker to support Wayne, rather than a small, lethal goal-scorer in the mould of Defoe. Nevertheless, if Defoe is to carry on his rich streak of form, it cannot do him any harm, and if Heskey still finds himself warming the Villa bench, there is every chance that Capello may have to change his mind and system to accommodate the Spurs striker. Nevertheless, Defoe remains a certainty for South Africa, and although he may not start, can prove to be an effective impact substitute for England, especially when in need of a goal.
Carlton Cole has also made a solid start to his England career under Capello. When the young Hammer has been used for England he has not looked out of place, showing an abundance of confidence as well as intelligence and skill. With four goals in seven games for West Ham this season, he has proven that he is now a lethal striker who can score goals and who can rise to the occasion. Like Heskey, Cole can hold up the ball magnificently well, and can prove to be a handful for defenders with his large physique and impressive strength. If he can stay injury-free and carry on his impressive goal-scoring form, then it will be difficult for Capello to leave him out of the squad.
Two strikers that are unlikely to be in Capello’s squad this summer are Michael Owen and Darren Bent. Capello has stated how he cannot pick Owen if he does not start regularly for his club. Darren Bent, however, has scored seven goals in his first eight games for Sunderland and is banging on the door for an England call-up. Yet it seems that Capello has made his mind up about these two and that they will not feature in his plans. Peter Crouch, Gaby Agbonlahor and Theo Walcott all seem to have an outside chance of making it to South Africa with Agbonlahor given a chance to impress with Capello with his inclusion in the latest England squad. Whilst boasting a great deal of power, pace and potential for Villa, many have questioned whether he has the capabilities to do it for England on the big stage, especially with so little experience. Crouch has an extremely impressive goal-scoring record for England, and has proven time and again not to be counted out. He is a useful weapon to have in a squad, with many international defenders admitting to finding it extremely hard to mark the lanky Londoner. Walcott is also a favourite of Capello, since his stunning hattrick in Zagreb and his versatility as a right winger could work in his favour in securing his place in the squad, as long as he proves his fitness this season.
England and Capello clearly have a host of in-form strikers to choose from for next summer. This is a problem that Capello is more than happy to have and will give him a few headaches over the next few months. Rooney is a definite with Heskey his preferred partner, however if Heskey does not play much for Villa, Capello will be left with a problem, with the likes of Defoe, Cole, and Agbonlahor knocking on his door. One thing Capello will be praying for is that Rooney does not get injured, for whilst Heskey is replaceable, Rooney simply isn’t. He has become England’s most important player and is vital to their World Cup chances next year. Providing everyone stays fit, the battle will be between Walcott and Cole to join Rooney, Heskey, Defoe on the plane to South Africa.