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Capello at home in hostile Zagreb

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Phil McNulty | 18:24 GMT, Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Maksimir Stadium in ZagrebZagreb

Zagreb's Maksimir Stadium is 96 years old and looks its age - an unwelcoming hotch-potch of concrete, glass and rust that exudes hostility even when it is almost deserted.

A running track that has seen better days swerves its way around the pitch where Fabio Capello's England face Croatia in what could be a defining World Cup qualifier on Wednesday.

The old place might look a bit run-down but it has just got something - you know it will be a wild and emotional ride when almost 40,000 Croatians cram in to see another meeting with England.

And yet England coach Fabio Capello believes his players may just find this undisguised bearpit more homely that their own lavishly-appointed £750m Wembley headquarters.

Not the greatest advert for the jewel in the Football Association's crown, but Capello backed his argument with footballing logic.

Wembley Stadium
Capello believes distance from a critical Wembley crowd, keen to pounce quickly on mistakes, may act in England's favour despite the ear-bashing they will receive in Zagreb.

Having been briefly acquainted with the old Maksimir I will just have to take his word for that, but it will not lack for atmosphere on Wednesday.

Wembley is a stylish, efficient and well-run stadium, but am I the only person who thinks it has yet to find its soul? England are still getting their feet under the table and it will come in time I am sure, but the x-factor is still missing.

Capello may also enjoy the weight of expectation and national fervour falling firmly on Croatia - a patriotic and confident football nation led by a patriotic and confident leader in the charismatic Slaven Bilic.

England went through a training session at the Maksimir in beautiful conditions after arriving on Tuesday, with Zagreb bathed in late summer sunlight and temperatures in the eighties.

And, despite Capello's confidence, they are sure to find it hot again in a stadium where they lost 2-0 in October 2006 and keeper Paul Robinson suffered the moment of misfortune from which his career has never recovered.

Croatia's repeat of that win at Wembley in November last year meant England stayed at home for Euro 2008 and gives Bilic's side an obvious psychological advantage.

But as Capello and captain John Terry gave off positive messages that this time things will be different, it became clear there will be one very crucial change.

England will not be tempted by the 3-5-2 formation that served them so badly on their last visit to Zagreb. The culprit behind that fiasco - Steve McClaren or Terry Venables? - has never quite been uncovered and Capello made it clear there will be no repeat.

Rio Ferdinand is fit barring any last-minute worries, so it will be the time-honoured back four - and I would play Wes Brown ahead of Glen Johnson at right-back.

Emile Heskey should get the nod ahead of Jermain Defoe to support Wayne Rooney, while conservatism suggests David Beckham will nudge out Theo Walcott - but I will cover myself by warning that second-guessing Capello is a futile and dangerous exercise.

The Italian was once more in confident form as he faced the media, while Terry made it clear Capello has the aura, confidence and arrogance of a coach who has been to the top of the game and enjoyed success there.

Now he just has to transmit that to a group of players who have not lived up to their billing on big occasions in recent times.

It is folly to claim he will instantly transform England's fortunes on the basis of his £6m-a-year wage packet, but this is a game where he can show he can make a difference.

He watched Croatia closely in Euro 2008 and now is the time he can put his plotting into practice. Capello has an agile tactical mind, so it will be fascinating to see how England combat a technically gifted style, especially playmaker Luka Modric.

He has total respect from England's players. Capello keeps his distance. There is none of the mateyness of the Steve McClaren era - he will not be joining a kickabout and having a laugh with the lads in training.

Capello's response to a question about his time with the players for these two qualifiers was telling.

It has been a good time for him to get to know his squad, it was suggested. It is a good time for them to get to know him, was the reply.

Capello was not suggesting he does not care about his players, but their relationship is strictly professional rather than personal.

And amen to that.

They will know more about him in the pressure of the Maksimir Stadium on Wednesday - and he may get to know a lot more about them.


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