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England must raise game in Zagreb

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Phil McNulty | 22:35 GMT, Saturday, 6 September 2008

Barcelona

England will be glad to see the back of Andorra - an aggressive irritant that exposed their limitations and raised serious anxieties ahead of Wednesday's World Cup qualifier in Croatia.

Fabio Capello's side got the job done eventually, but it was accomplished with little of the purpose and cohesion that might lift spirits ahead of their entry into the hothouse atmosphere of Zagreb.

Capello was more animated than at any time during his reign when he met the media on Friday - and similar terms can be applied to his agitated arm-waving in the technical area of Barcelona's sparsely-populated Olympic Stadium.

And this is because Capello, although he knows Croatia will present a contrasting and arguably more rewarding challenge, will also be acutely aware that England will suffer unless they can conjure up a serious improvement in the next four days.

Theo Walcott is surrounded by Andorran defenders

A relentlessly grim first 45 minutes, while never bad enough to make you wish you were at the Coldplay gig taking place across the road, was a witless affair as England showed none of the guile required to combat eleven defenders strung across the last third of the pitch.

Andrew Murray's progress against Rafael Nadal in the US Open semi-final did not please our Spanish hosts, and England's display offered them nothing in the way of cheer until Joe Cole appeared belatedly for the second half.

Capello, to his credit, was pro-active at the interval as England revived memories of their stumbling 3-0 win against Andorra in this stadium 18 months ago.

He sent England out to wander around alone four minutes before the scheduled start of the second period, John Terry and company looking for all the world like errant pupils who had been given a rollocking and told to stand outside.

Capello insisted this was because England's dressing room was too warm. I bet it was - and you couldn't even hear the sound of his tongue drilling a hole in his cheek when he said it.

He also replaced the disappointing Stewart Downing and Jermain Defoe with match-winner Cole and Emile Heskey, getting England's campaign off to a winning start in the process.

Watching Capello was a fascinating exercise in the second half, despite Cole scoring the two goals that eventually gave England victory.

The Italian looked almost permanently infuriated, punching his fist into his palm with open disgust during one particularly tedious and pointless passing move.

And even Cole, who should have been in the good books, joined Wayne Rooney on the receiving end of a fearful telling off for leaving Heskey too isolated when Capello wanted to rack up England's goal difference.

This was not a happy Fabio. Not happy at all.

Capello had been restored to calm by his post-match briefing, but the body language gave away vital signs of his concerns, and occasionally fury.

The Italian may be criticised for failing to better Steve McClaren's victory against Andorra, but the players must also be questioned for their lack of subtlety and invention until Cole's arrival.

It is easy to see, when watching at close quarters, why it is so difficult to navigate a way around a side even as poor as Andorra when they man the barricades in such numbers. This is the footballing equivalent of a traffic jam - but it was England's inability to conjure up any short cuts that frustrates.

Capello must hope, and it is still possible, that the higher stakes on offer in Zagreb will get the juices flowing in his big players.

Games may be raised and points may be proved, but England cannot leave it any longer.

Rooney is enigmatic in an England shirt. This may be regarded as a contentious statement, but sometimes he is barely recognisable from the gloriously untamed talent that emerged at Everton and set Euro 2004 alight.

Capello makes a point to Rooney

He is at the stage in his career where he needs to be delivering defining moments for England and Zagreb on Wednesday is the perfect place to start.

The absence of Michael Owen thrusts greater responsibility on to Rooney's shoulders and it is time for this talent to flourish for England.

And while I have no time for the anti-Frank Lampard brigade, he was anonymous here and never took control of midfield or the game in the manner in which he is so obviously capable. He joins Rooney on the "must do better" roster.

Capello all but confirmed Joe Cole would start in Croatia - indeed it must not be in doubt despite his little spat with his coach. He gives England an extra thrust and imagination which is in short supply elsewhere.

And Capello's words of praise for Heskey's quality - "big, nice movements, creates space" - suggests he will partner Rooney on Wednesday rather than Defoe.

There are still questions elsewhere, chief among them being David Beckham's potential role against Croatia.

It is a sign of England's paucity of right-wing resources that Theo Walcott took the role ahead of David Bentley - and the lingering feeling is that Beckham will be back from the start in Zagreb.

England should have moved on from Beckham, but Capello may feel his tactical discipline and experience is more suited to Wednesday's game than Walcott's pacy unpredictability.

The recovery of Rio Ferdinand is crucial, while I would be tempted to recall Wes Brown at right-back on Wednesday. Glen Johnson is gifted but his tendency to drift off could get Brown the nod.

England's performance had more of a sense of a job professionally done than it did here 18 months ago, even though the final scoreline was better on that occasion. There was also none of the poisonous back-drop that scarred that game.

Croatia, however, will be a proving ground for Capello and a group of England players who are not in the habit of getting the big results.

Capello's previous club record at least suggests he has form for delivering vital results when required, even when England do not neccesarily do likewise.

England will hope the Capello theory holds true on Wednesday, but on this evidence it is optimism based more on hope than expectation.

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