By Greg Stobart
It is a sign of just how much Fabio Capello has changed his approach to managing England that only seven of the 24-man squad selected for Friday’s decisive Euro 2012 qualifier in Montenegro were part of the dismal failure in the 2010 World Cup.
The Three Lions booked their place in Poland and Ukraine next summer with a 2-2 draw in Podgorica, although the circumstances were controversial as they lost a two-goal lead and had Wayne Rooney sent off in the second half following a moment of utter stupidity.
Nevertheless, England got the job done, and in doing so owe a debt of thanks to players who were controversially overlooked by Capello for the World Cup in South Africa.
Ashley Young starred with a goal and an assist, Darren Bent scored his fourth England goal in his last five appearances while Theo Walcott proved he has developed his final delivery with a wonderful cross for the opener.
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Young, Bent and Walcott were all controversially omitted from the 2010 squad and each expressed at the time their disappointment with Capello’s decision. In Walcott’s case, the Italian has admitted he feels he made a mistake, but the same could apply to all three players, who have emerged as key men in the qualifying campaign for the European Championships.
Capello, it seems, now accepts the need to pick players who are on form in the Premier League. Not so much a need, more common sense. Young and Bent have been in outstanding form at club level for many years but only in the last 12 months has Capello appeared to twig that they could be able to translate that form to the international stage.
Perhaps, in the grander scheme, England will benefit from their absence in South Africa. As England secured the point they needed to qualify for Euro 2012, all three played with notable pace, confidence and enthusiasm in the final third.
It bore a stark contrast with the frightened performances turned in by the likes of Aaron Lennon in South Africa. Young, Bent and Walcott and not scarred by that chastening experience, they don’t have the fear of failure with England etched into their psyche.
The two goals summed that up. As Rooney pulled the strings in his role as a withdrawn striker, Bent, Young and Walcott provided movement and link-up play in front of him as England tore Montenegro apart in the first half.
The opener was scored by Young in the 10th minute, the Manchester United winger heading home from close range after Walcott’s delightful cross from the right, one that any defence would struggle to deal with.
In the 31st minute, Young turned provider as the Three Lions doubled the advantage. First he latched onto Rooney’s through pass and then showed brilliant awareness to square for Bent to tap home. The Aston Villa striker still offers too little outside the penalty box but there is no doubting his credentials in front of goal – at all levels of the game.
In other areas of the pitch, there were more reminders of how England have moved on from their World Cup misery.
Joe Hart, for example, has now earned 14 caps without experiencing defeat, more than any other England player since Euro 96. At least he went to South Africa, but Capello made the wrong decision in selecting two weaker goalkeepers at the tournament, most famously West Ham stopper Rob Green who made a horrendous mistake against the USA, but also David James once he decided to drop Green.
So, do we praise Capello for learning from his mistakes? Or do we lambast him for getting it so badly wrong at the World Cup, when it really mattered? For £6.1 million a year, the answer is both.
A young, hungry squad with a point to prove is the best way forward for England as they prepare for Euro 2012. Capello’s most effective approach is to pick players who are on form for their clubs, to disregard reputations and put the team first. He has shown he is willing to do that by dropping Rio Ferdinand, his former captain, from the latest squad.
The second half in Podgorica showed there is much work for England to do, while Rooney’s absence through suspension for at least one game in Poland and Ukraine will be a massive blow. But many England players will go to the tournament with a point to prove – not least to their own manager.