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Capello will keep England grounded

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Phil McNulty | 07:54 GMT, Wednesday, 8 October 2008

A victory from nowhere against opposition with plenty of previous for beating England - inspired by a hat-trick from a player with the world at his feet.

The last great false dawn of English football was that famous 5-1 win against Germany under the guidance of Sven-Goran Eriksson and inspired by Michael Owen's treble in September 2001.

Fast forward seven years to Zagreb and England are beating Croatia, the team that ensured they spent last summer at home instead of Euro 2008, 4-1 with Theo Walcott announcing his arrival on the world stage by repeating Owen's feat.

I was at both of those games and saw how the rampant optimism of Munich became the disappointments of Shizuoka, Lisbon and Gelsenkirchen under Eriksson.

So can Fabio Capello do things differently and transform an unexpected victory into tangible success?

I can recall sitting in Munich's Olympic Stadium with a sense of growing bemusement as England goals flew past Oliver Kahn with monotonous regularity - and there was a similar feeling of being present at something very special in Zagreb's hostile Maksimir Stadium.

It was as outstanding as it was unexpected.

Now the trick is for Capello to build on this new opportunity and try to eventually navigate England into footballing territory that proved beyond Eriksson's compass.

And he can start with the two games against Kazakhstan at Wembley and Belarus in Minsk - although the second assignment could yet prove one of the most difficult in England's World Cup qualifying group.

Capello's reaction to a landmark win in Zagreb was trademark stone-face. No new dawn. No brave new world.

And rightly so.

If Capello wanted to snuff out any signs of premature euphoria in its infancy, he could not have done it better with a straight bat performance that made Sir Geoffrey Boycott look like a schoolboy slogger.

If England got carried away after Munich - and it was not only the players - there is no chance of a similarly self-congratulatory tone under Capello.

Indeed, he described the win in Croatia as "nothing" - which is taking the art of under-statement to extreme levels but gives an insight into the Italian's hard-nosed approach.

Business is business with Capello. He does not do sentiment and will not waste time basking in a glory that has already come and gone.

The three points in Croatia were welcomed, but have probably already been consigned to the back of Capello's mind.

And just to confirm this single-minded approach, he once again raised some eyebrows by leaving Owen out of his squad.

Fabio Capello

I, and plenty of other England observers, were mystified by Owen's exclusion from the squad for games against Andorra and Croatia.

And while six points deliver a measure of justification, I still feel Owen should have been in that squad and he should be in this one.

BBC Sport experts Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson were spot on when they gave their verdict on Match of the Day 2.

They examined England's strike force of Wayne Rooney, Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe and Emile Heskey.

Hansen said: "If you look at the four forwards in there and take Wayne Rooney out of the equation, Michael Owen is better than the other three."

And Lawrenson added: "If England need a goal with 20 minutes to go in one of the two games, surely you would want Owen on the bench."

Exactly.

I would have left out one of Crouch or Defoe to select Owen.

I am not advocating a place for Owen in the team. The players who did so well in Zagreb must be retained, but he surely has to be a fall-back option on the bench.

England are not so blessed with attacking riches that they can leave their most reliable goalscorer at home. Time will tell if Capello simply wants to see more from Owen or that he just does not fit his bill.

There have been question marks about his fitness and form, but this does not seem to have affected David Beckham's selection, who is likely to become even more of a peripheral figure with Walcott now laying claim to a right-flank role.

Expect Capello, who comfortably out-manouevred the much-admired Slaven Bilic in his own backyard, to be urging England to forget their first six points in their World Cup qualifying group and concentrate on the next six.

After watching Capello in close-up action, he is not as in thrall to England's players as Eriksson was before him. This is a major plus.

It was one of Eriksson's serious flaws, a failing that encouraged him to use some "superstars" when they were clearly unfit in major tournaments - Beckham in Japan in 2002 and Wayne Rooney in Germany four years later being prime examples.

Despite my own reservations about his continued inclusion, I would never accuse Capello of picking Beckham (or anyone) out of sentiment. He must feel he will serve a useful purpose at some point.

As for England's team, Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard is back after injury and it will come as a surprise to no-one that I feel he must be instantly re-instated.

He could be restored alongside Frank Lampard in central midfield, even though the effectiveness of what should be a world-class pairing has been a constant conundrum for England managers.

The alternative would be to play Gerrard on the left as a straight replacement for Joe Cole and leave the central partnership of Lampard and Gareth Barry undisturbed after their success in Zagreb.

The idea of Gerrard on the left is a contentious one, with both Jamie and Harry Redknapp almost going into meltdown after he played there with little success against the Czech Republic at Wembley in August.

Capello stuck to his guns in the face of criticism then, so I do not expect him to have any qualms about putting him back out there for these two games if he feels it is in England's interest.

I actually detest seeing him stuck on the flank, but one thing is certain - Gerrard has to play.

The day of decision about Lampard and Gerrard will come when everyone is fit and England face opposition from the truly top bracket.

It is not a decision Capello has to make yet, but England have not yet shown they are good enough to leave men like Gerrard's undoubted calibre sitting on the sidelines.

What Capello will use from the win in Croatia is the huge confidence gained, but he will temper that with the brutal realism that is his hallmark.

If anyone in the England camp shows signs of getting carried away, Capello has shown enough to suggest it will be swiftly stamped on.

But if anyone is tempted remember Munich.

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