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Sunday 18 February 2018

All logic points to prolonged tenure for embattled Capello

The tabloids' quest to oust the England manager makes no sense whatsoever, writes Paul Hayward

Gone is the smile and the enthusiastic response. The charm offensive and hoped-for fresh start of only a month ago is already a mere memory.

Fabio Capello now answers questions and discusses the future with a testy indifference, sometimes asking questions of his own, such as how newspaper reporters can look at themselves in the shaving mirror in the morning, though perhaps this proud and successful coach is doing well to talk at all given that he has been portrayed in quick succession as a jackass and Frankenstein's monster.

England is familiar with this routine, of course, even if the Italian is not. The more strident prints have decided it is time for Capello to go and, having made their decision, are doing their utmost to help bring it about. There is no obvious successor waiting in the wings, much less the English one the Football Association has said it would prefer -- and, if there were, Aston Villa would probably just have appointed him.

Capello's departure at this stage could only be costly and disruptive.

Steven Gerrard has come out with the eminently reasonable observation that England would struggle to find a better qualified coach, yet a 4-0 victory in the opening game of a qualification cycle still has to be portrayed as a stroke of luck for a man who was otherwise facing the chop. If it is any comfort to Laurent Blanc, the new France coach who began his qualifying campaign by losing 1-0 at home to Belarus, a winning manager was being regarded with as much hostility and suspicion on the other side of the English Channel.

Cynics may say the red tops have decided that savaging the manager is going to be more fun this season than getting in any way excited about the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine in two years, and they may be right. It is also perfectly legitimate to suppose that, even if England qualify imperiously with a string of 4-0 wins, they will still stumble and fail in the tournament proper, because that is not only what happened last time, it is beginning to form a pattern of happening every time. But -- and here's the point -- that may not be the coach's fault.

It seemed, to this observer at least, that while Capello was far from flawless at the World Cup the major failings were those of the players. They never demonstrated the same appetite, intelligence or energy levels as their counterparts from Holland or Germany, never mind Spain, and though Capello could have done a few things differently, he was never going to knock such an underpowered outfit into a team of world beaters.

Sven-Goran Eriksson could not do it either, Steve McClaren never even put himself in a position to try, so it is hard to see the logic behind toppling Capello at this stage. One thing he has unquestionably proved is that he can supervise an effective qualifying campaign, and that is exactly what England presently want. Once at Euro 2012, he will either go some way to redeeming the reputation he lost at the World Cup or he will fail again and take his bow. Should he be in any way successful in Poland and Ukraine, there could even be a clamour to retain him for the next World Cup. Far stranger things have happened to England managers, yet there will be no possibility of a Bobby Robson-type reversal of fortune if his contract is terminated early.

Until results start going against England, there seems no pressing reason to abandon Capello, even if we have managed to turn a sternly autocratic managerial persona into something of a figure of fun. Results are the weapons Capello can use to defend himself and if Friday's patchy, but ultimately encouraging, start can be reproduced in Switzerland on Tuesday, perhaps the trickiest fixture of the campaign, the manager will be entitled to expect the mood of England to swing behind him and force his shriller critics to change their tune.

Already it is evident that some of the charges levelled at Capello do not stand up. There was no more a players' mutiny against his disciplinarian style at Wembley than there was a backlash from the terraces. The players all looked keen to impress and eager to implement instructions, and while the victory against Bulgaria was not without its defensive lapses, the fans went home happy. Considerably more happy than Capello looked in the interview room, as it happens -- but while he may be at odds with the media the manager has clearly not lost the supporters or the dressing- room.

Nor were his tactics as neolithic as people have been making out.

England lined up in a traditional 4-4-2, but Wayne Rooney played his new withdrawn striker's role with studious precision, bringing the best out of Jermain Defoe in the process, Theo Walcott and James Milner cut in from the wings, and Ashley Cole was at times the most advanced attacker. Just about the only criticism of the system, apart from a couple of errors from stand-in centre-halves, was that it subdued Gerrard by anchoring him too deep.

Yet few others were subdued. Adam Johnson gave another demonstration of his promise and confidence, the goalkeeping situation appears to have been permanently resolved and even Walcott, without managing to get on to the scoresheet, used his pace and movement to good effect. When Rooney slipped the ball to Defoe for the crucial second goal, he had the option of passing to Walcott to his right in just as good a position. Bulgaria did not know which player to mark and that was what created the opportunity. Quick, intelligent running off the ball is the essence of counterattacking.

So what's not to like? While a bad result in Basle could bring Capello down, there seems no immediate reason to expect such a thing, much less hope for it.

If Capello can get England to post the sort of result they achieved in Croatia two years ago the papers might start liking him again, though the reality is that even a draw would not be a calamity.

The last time England played Switzerland in a competitive fixture, in Portugal in the Euro 2004 finals, Rooney blew them away almost singlehanded in a 3-0 win. Ottmar Hitzfeld's team did provide the shock of the last World Cup by beating Spain in South Africa, though, along with Italy and France, they went home before England after failing to get out of their group.

Other countries had poor World Cups too and, even now, things may not be as dark as they are being painted, a point put to Capello at Wembley. "You write it all," he said, closing the discussion. "Not me."


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