It is 100 days until England face the United States in Rustenburg to begin their World Cup campaign. It is a significant timescale, as a glance across the Atlantic Ocean confirms. In the first 100 days of his presidency Franklin Roosevelt introduced the legislation that formed the New Deal. Over the last 100, Fabio Capello has received a raw deal.
As the Italian is discovering, events can conspire against England managers. "I have learned a lot about what happens in this country when some things happen outside the pitch," he admitted. "It is private problems. It is not my problem," insisted Capello. But off-field misdemeanours and injuries inflicted on the pitch have rendered his job more difficult. And when England face Egypt at Wembley tonight, it is to a backdrop of uncertainty. That appeared a thing of the past. With a clarity of thought, Capello combined an emphasis on rewarding form with a consistency of selection. It was a rare balancing act and it meant that, months before the World Cup, the Italian's preferred side was clearly taking shape.
Now the picture looks rather more uneven. Only one of Capello's first-choice back four is fit tonight and he, the deposed captain John Terry, has erred on and off the football field of late. "The private lives of some players is not so good," added Capello. "But on the pitch, it is different. John will be the same player in the dressing room. I told him you have to do the same things like a captain."
The concern is that Terry will be given the reception of a pariah, not a leader. "The crowd have to help us, to help John Terry, to not boo him," added the manager. But Terry has created a conundrum at left-back. A broken ankle means Ashley Cole may struggle to regain match fitness before the tournament. His deputy, Wayne Bridge, has opted out after Terry's approach to international relations with his French ex-girlfriend. Leighton Baines and Stephen Warnock, with a combined total of six minutes' international football, are auditioning for a place on the plane.
Wes Brown starts tonight as the regular right-back, Glen Johnson, is out. The new skipper, Rio Ferdinand, begins his reign in anti-climactic fashion: as he is too often, he is injured. Steven Gerrard, third in line until recently, inherits the armband. "Being England captain is always a big responsibility," said the Liverpool midfielder. "I am delighted I will be leading the boys out." He does so in a different environment. "The manager did reiterate our responsibilities on and off the pitch, but he has done that since day one," Gerrard said. "For me the message is to move on, forget about it and concentrate on the football."
That presents the manager with dilemmas. The outstanding result of Capello's tenure was secured by Theo Walcott, with his hat-trick in the 4-1 win in Croatia. It seemed surreal at the time and appears still more so now: Walcott's undistinguished displays in a stop-start season mean he can only command a place on the Arsenal bench. Aaron Lennon is the in-form English right winger of the campaign, but a groin problem sidelines the Tottenham man. Then there is the issue of Capello's favoured impact substitute, David Beckham, who exerted too little influence when he started for AC Milan against Manchester United a fortnight ago.
Factor in the ongoing debate about the goalkeeping position - Joe Hart, whose form for Birmingham gives him a compelling case for selection, has started only one international - and the issue about Emile Heskey's lack of goals (five in 34 goals for club and country this season) and awkward decisions mushroom. Egypt, winners of the last three African Cups of Nations, should provide a stern examination of Capello's side at a time when, as Gerrard said, many are in competition with one another for the remaining places in the squad for South Africa. Nevertheless, the mantra from the England camp is that they retain the unity that has been a feature of Capello's tenure. "This gives us a perfect chance to show we are still together," added Gerrard. "A lot has been said about players' private lives. It is time we move on as one. The World Cup is only 100 days away."
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