Capello aims to silence doubters
VIEWED through Fabio Capello's steely gaze, England face a Nadir tonight but it's only Belhadj.
If England's players possessed half their manager's self-belief, a potentially testing meeting with Belhadj, Majid Bougherra and their counter-attacking company would be all over with the National Anthems still resisting the first wave of vuvuzelas.
Even before England's dispiriting opening draw with the US, Capello's tactics and man-management were being gently questioned. Since the frustrating encounter with Uncle Sam, the chorus of disapproval has grown, the censuring focusing on his refusal to inform the players of his chosen ones in advance.
During a spiky inquisition backstage at Green Point Stadium last night, Capello mixed defiance and boredom in sparring with those who chart the rise and many falls of England's fortunes.
The Italian fiddled with his hotel room key-card, stretched his hamstrings and calf muscles, challenged reporters to try his job and then, sotto voce, muttered "another manager'' when another reporter attempted to make a point that England players need reassurance.
Short of sticking his fingers in his ears and going "la-la-la-la'', Capello couldn't have been less interested in listening. That's why the English FA employed him, why they pay him £6m a year. The iron duke of Italy will not yield to public opinion, let alone the press. Short of breaking into 'My Way,' Old Flint Eyes could not have made his point better. His methods had served him well for many successful years now.
Capello's CV justifies the faith many people have in him, particularly a grateful England support who for so long have been led around the Cape of Good Hope and then into a storm, usually of the sudden-death variety.
Yet Capello must set the right mood for the players, must instill in them the confidence to deal with Algeria's threat on the break and from corners. After watching the US take on Slovenia at Ellis Park, England must rattle in some goals against Algeria, improving a goal difference which might be vital in deciding who finishes top and, in all probability, avoids the smooth-moving German juggernaut in the round of 16.
History and form point to England, who have never lost in 15 games against African opposition and are ranked eighth in the world to Algeria's 30. Vuvuzelas permitting, the vocal support will be mainly for England, whose supporters flooded in their thousands into this elegant city, packing out the waterfront. Meals and seals abounded but the talk of the town was a strong-willed Italian.
Capello seems to be taking a twin-track approach to this World Cup, exuding conviction yet hardly helping his players' poise by not informing them of his line-up until two hours before kick-off. The expectation in defence is that Robert Green will start in goal, that Jamie Carragher will partner John Terry in an experienced but hardly quick central defence and that Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole will bomb down the flanks.
In front of them, Gareth Barry will sit alongside Frank Lampard with Steven Gerrard on the left and Aaron Lennon on the right, looking to service Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey.
In training, Rooney was partnered by Heskey but when it came to the shooting practice at the end, the Aston Villa striker sat it out, just watching from the floor as Rooney and Jermain Defoe rattled balls goalwards.
Heskey has recorded only seven goals and 10 assists in 59 international but retains his manager's support. Capello is 64 today, so the headline-writers will be hoping for a strong delivery from Lennon. All's fair in love, war and big-game build-ups so Capello inevitably would not confirm any of his starting XI, barring Barry's welcome return, and he would be naive to show his hand to the opposition.
Where Capello's logic falters is in private, back at the team's elegant retreat base where anybody with the slightest understanding of the English professional's psyche knows that the majority prefer being told early, rather than at the last minute.
In particular, Capello should have named his 'keeper last night or simply whispered to the chosen one after dinner. It's the uncertainty that troubles many.
Green should start but his body language in training last night hinted at the distressing week he has endured, almost screaming for some reassurance after his mistake against the US.
Twice, England's goalkeeping coach Ray Clemence sent half-volleys loping towards Green, who fumbled in quick succession. The contrast with Joe Hart was obvious, the youngster clutching most. So surely it was better for a goalkeeper to wake up today, knowing he's the No 1, that he enjoyed Capello's faith? "You think so?'' came the retort.
"Yes,'' came the chorus. "Then you'd better take my place.'' It would require a dugout the size of Dagenham to accommodate those who felt Capello's omerta was counter-productive. "I've always used this way, this method of telling the players. It's my way. I'd prefer not to change.'' Even if it was psychologically harmful? "Why? Why? All the players are ready and focused. No problems.''
His words were drowned out by sceptical laughter. By now, Capello was throwing his weight from one foot to the other, resembling Dick Fosbury limbering up, itching to move on.
"Always on the day of the game because, I remember, three times in my first year in management (at AC Milan), I'd tell the players if they were playing on the day before. After dinner, I'd speak with the players and say whether they would play. But if they got injured the next day it was difficult to get the other players ready to play. So I stopped. I have not done it since.'' Yet the majority of England players do not possess the mettle of Paolo Maldini or Franco Baresi.
"All the players make mistakes,'' added Capello. Had he made mistakes? "All managers can make mistakes. I don't think so. If the performance of some players is not so good, sometimes the pressure of this game is too much for some players.'' So ease their nerves. With Rooney and Gerrard in the side, England should be all right but Capello could have made their life easier.
"The score is the most important thing. Everything else is only words. Okay?'' Okay. Just win. (© Daily Telegraph, London)