David Beckham is set to win a record-breaking 109th cap for England in Saturday's friendly against Slovakia, but Fabio Capello knows the landmark occasion can't be allowed to overshadow his attempt to build a team capable of more substantial achievements.
Beckham will become England's most capped outfield player of all-time at Wembley this weekend, overtaking the previous mark set by Bobby Moore, who captained his country to FIFA World Cup™ glory in 1966. It is a remarkable achievement given that Beckham's international career appeared over when he was dropped by former England coach Steve McClaren in the aftermath of a disappointing 2006 FIFA World Cup campaign.
Beckham signalled his intention to wind down his career when he moved to LA Galaxy, but was granted a reprieve by McClaren and the former Manchester United midfielder's decision to go on loan to AC Milan has kept him fit and sharp enough to stay in Capello's plans. With Theo Walcott injured again and Shaun Wright-Phillips struggling with an ankle problem, Beckham, confidence restored by his time in Italy, could even make his 100th start on Saturday.
"I didn't think I would play for my country again when I got taken out of the team by Steve [McClaren]," Beckham said. "And when I went to Milan, I didn't know whether I'd be able to keep up with the pace of some of the players in the team, but I surprised myself.
"The confidence is back in that I think I can still play at this game. I'd hope I offer more than just experience. If I come on in a game, I can set up goals from crosses, free-kicks, corners. I've still got that work-rate there, I've shown that with Milan and have played in every game so far."
If Capello does start Beckham on the right wing, he is sure to give way at some stage to Tottenham's Aaron Lennon, whose blistering pace makes him a potential alternative to Beckham as Walcott's understudy. Although Capello is gradually assembling a group who look capable of making a strong challenge at next year's World Cup finals, the Beckham condundrum is just one of several dilemmas the Italian has to resolve.
Ukraine visit Wembley for a vital FIFA World Cup qualifier on Wednesday so Capello will be keen to deal with some of those issues during the Slovakia game. He has to decide whether Steven Gerrard should be given the chance to replicate his superb form for Liverpool in the advanced attacking role he thrives on at Anfield.
Making Gerrard England's focal point would meet with widespread approval, but it would mean a complete restructing of the 4-4-2 formation Capello has favoured so far. It is more likely the Liverpool captain will once again be used on the left-wing, with Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry anchoring central midfield.
Lampard has been forced to curb his own attacking instincts to allow Gerrard to roam and the Chelsea star insists he is willing to adapt for the good of the team. "I am playing a different role. It is much more of a holding position, while Steven has been asked to play more on the left, but to be fair it's worked," Lampard said. "There had to be a rejigging of the midfield because it wasn't working. I do want to get forward because that is my natural game but I will try to adapt."
Despite his description of Wayne Rooney as a "crazy man" after the bout of petulance that saw the Manchester United star sent off against Fulham last weekend, Capello knows the fiery forward is essential to his team. The only question remains, if not Gerrard, then who will partner Rooney.
Emile Heskey has filled the role capably but has struggled with Aston Villa of late. Peter Crouch is in form for Portsmouth, while West Ham's Carlton Cole could get another chance to impress at some stage after winning his first cap against Spain last month. In goal, United's reserve keeper Ben Foster will get an opportunity to put pressure on David James following a call-up earned by his superb display in the League Cup final against Tottenham.
The farcical call-up of Ledley King exposed Capello's concerns about England's defensive depth behind John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, but with the centre-half sent back to Tottenham to nurse his knee injury, Everton's Phil Jagielka will get some playing time instead.