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Time for Capello to deliver

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Phil McNulty | 10:36 GMT, Thursday, 4 September 2008

Fabio Capello's time for transition is over - the experimentation is at an end and the real business of the new England era begins.

It's the start of the Fifa 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign and matches against Andorra and Croatia. It's the start of the serious business and time for compelling evidence that the Italian is worth the reported £6m-a-year lavished on him by the Football Association.

The meeting with Andorra on Saturday is almost the equivalent of an open goal in international football terms - it will be against the hostility and passion of the Croatians in Zagreb on Wednesday that we will see if Capello can forge a group of winners from England's perennial under-achievers.

Capello's honeymoon period showed signs of drawing to a close when England were fortunate to fashion a 2-2 draw from a desperate performance against the Czech Republic at Wembley.

The first serious questions were raised about Capello's methods after that shapeless, muddled display - and with full justification.

Now is the time for Capello to deliver the answers and demonstrate that he has something new and fresh to offer England, not simply a rehash of failings displayed under Sven-Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren.

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It is time for Capello - and indeed his expensively-assembled Italian back-up team - to show he is the man England thought they were getting, a ruthless seeker of results with a tactical mind who can combat the best in Europe.

Croatia coach Slaven Bilic and his gifted team out-smarted McClaren with ease twice in the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, even at Wembley when England's stakes were high and a place in Austria and Switzerland their prize.

There is something that is worth underscoring, however, if there is a rush to judge Capello's early efforts in England.

Any criticism of Capello so far must be placed in its proper context. He has effectively been on a fact-finding mission since his appointment to assess the best talent available to him - with Zagreb surely at the forefront of his thinking.

If he can deliver a result on Wednesday, all the early stutters and unspectacular performances will be put in perspective. If he does not, the questions about whether England are going to simply deliver more of the same under their new coach will be posed.

I will be following England from Barcelona to Zagreb and back again next Thursday - the journey must end with a minimum of four points for a satisfactory verdict to be delivered on Capello's first forays into competitive international combat.

Capello has been calm and uncompromising despite the lack of excitement in his early games, and it is to be hoped his confidence is not misplaced.

Andorra is a given - please do not let anyone say "there are no easy games in football" because this is the definition of one.

Croatia is the key, and if our flight arrives back at Heathrow with a point at least next Thursday, Capello can consider it a job well done against one of the most talented and formidable sides in European football.

He has put pressure on himself by excluding Newcastle's Michael Owen from his squad entirely - serious error in my opinion.

Capello is a realist and knows already that he will be criticised, once again with justification, if England do not deliver goals in these two games with the country's most reliable international marksman sitting at home.

He has cast off a perceived cloak of conservatism by jettisoning Owen and giving Fulham's Jimmy Bullard his chance, but he will be relying heavily on England's old order such as Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney to transfer club form to the international stage.

And dare he risk David Beckham in Zagreb? Beckham looked off the pace against the Czech Republic, despite the occasional trademark set-piece delivery, but he may survive in the absence of a realistic alternative.

Croatia is a nation that is never short on self-confidence, and they will feel they hold the psychological supremacy over England. Capello's team must conquer any lingering demons as well as Bilic's side to claim the result.

But it is Capello who will be the central figure. He will claim the praise if England come home unscathed, but he will face close scrutiny if they lose in Croatia because that is his proving ground.

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