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Bilic barbs inspire Capello

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Phil McNulty | 14:29 UK time, Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Steve McClaren infamously took shelter under an umbrella as England's Euro 2008 hopes sank in a deluge on Croatia's last Wembley visit - the transformation in fortunes since ensured Fabio Capello exuded only rays of sunshine in readiness for their return.

Capello does not do playful, World Cup qualification is too serious for that, but he came as close as he ever will at Arsenal's London Colney traning base as he plots to secure the victory that would confirm England's place in South Africa.

He exuded confidence, without ever courting complacency, and was even in bullish enough form to return the fire turned on his team by Croatian counterpart Slaven Bilic as part of a very obvious declaration of psychological warfare.

Brandishing newspaper cuttings can often be the last refuge of the desperate coach - but there was authority in Capello's words as he responded to Bilic's charge that his side lacks "Englishness" under the Italian's guidance.

"Thank you Mr Bilic," said Capello. "There is no need to motivate my players after this fantastic assistance."

Bilic, a master of mischief as a player (just ask Laurent Blanc about missing the 1998 World Cup final) and now following suit as a coach, also claims England are "definitely missing something" but is not going to share it with the world. It is his and Croatia's little secret.

Maybe he has detected an uncertainty about the goalkeeping position, where West Ham's Robert Green still needs to convince, or at right-back where Liverpool's £17m summer purchase Glen Johnson has proved a more reliable attacking weapon than a figure of defensive reassurance.

Bilic might mean England's right flank, where no serious long-term successor to David Beckham has been found, although Aaron Lennon is likely to get his chance to audition on Wednesday.

And what about up front, where England are again expected to rely on the bludgeoning approach of Emile Heskey as opposed to the rapier thrusts of Jermain Defoe?

Or maybe, as is most likely, it is a classic piece of Bilic bluff. As a man who still reportedly gets through 40 cigarettes a day, he is no stranger to a smokescreen.

The impression lingers that he would much prefer the weakness of the McClaren regime, weaknesses he and his players preyed upon ruthlessly, than the pragmatism and resilience of Capello's rejuvenated team. And this is the motivation behind his message.

englandtraining595335afp.jpgFabio Capello rallies his players in training

The words cut no ice with Capello and England captain John Terry, other than to perhaps provide a last layer of inspiration on their intense preparations.

England banished the ghosts of McClaren's last game with a 4-1 win in Zagreb in September - but such is Capello's focus on Wednesday's Wembley confrontation that even the events of that balmy night appeared to have temporarily slipped his memory.

He announced England won 4-0 and after being corrected took the opportunity to stress: "It is history for me...archivio...." One for the archives.

And this is how Capello is treating every previous game in his reign. The progress towards South Africa may have been unblemished, but only Croatia at Wembley counts now and he is aware Bilic's team will provide formidable opposition, even without their heartbeat Luka Modric.

Capello insists England have "three finals" and need to win one - but he knows the advantages of early qualification and the opportunities for crucial experimentation that will bring.

And even if England get the victory they need on Wednesday it is merely the completion of phase one of the task Capello was hired to perform.

If there is one element of "Englishness" Capello truly wants to banish it is the habit of losing in the last eight of major tournaments - although admittedly even this was an improvement on not actually qualifying, which was the McClaren legacy.

The true measure of Capello's reign will not be reaching a World Cup, it will be excelling in one. This is the driving force. He will not be celebrating too lavishly if Croatia are beaten.

Bilic's words have provided a suitable sub-plot to the game, and Capello was preceded into his seat at London Colney by the man who is the living and breathing answer to his accusations of a lack of "Englishness" in England - captain John Terry.

He was keen not to get sucked in by the knockabout Bilic banter, but Terry can be lined up alongside Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and David Beckham as obvious symbols of the "Englishness" of Capello's side.

And Terry is a man on a mission after readily admitting in the past that he could only bring himself to watch a few minutes of Euro 2008, such was his disgust at England missing out.

He revealed he will not be indulging in Churchillian speeches prior to kick-off - Capello is the man who talks and England's players do the listening.

The inspiration for England will come from the prize within touching distance. It did not need the verbal jabs from Bilic to remind them of the price of victory at Wembley.

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