The stage is set, the performers are ready and soon the spotlight will be on England once again when they face Andorra in Barcelona's Olympic Stadium on Wednesday evening. The 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifier also marks the competitive debut of their new 'director', Fabio Capello, who since his appointment in December 2007 has been meticulously preparing for this match.
Together with travelling the length and breadth of the country to watch players in action, friendly victories over Switzerland, USA and Trinidad and Tobago, a draw against Czech Republic and a narrow loss in France has given the Italian a good understanding of what he can expect from his charges. But do not expect to see too many changes in personnel as England attempt to qualify for South Africa 2010. For Capello, his role so far has been about bringing confidence rather than initiating a cull of those who failed to reach UEFA EURO 2008.
"The biggest challenge is getting individuals to play for England like they do for their clubs," he said. There has been a lack of confidence among players and it's my job to rebuild that. There's a lot of pressure when playing for your country - we need to free them of that so they can play naturally, without fear.
"English players have always had a reputation for a great work ethic. But I've also been impressed by their level of skill and technique. This combination will help us succeed. I'm certainly very happy with the players I have in the England squad."
A second chance
One player who Capello has given his public backing to is John Terry, who endured a difficult opening to 2008. Firstly, the defender learned that his tenure as captain of the national team was over, with the new England coach preferring to rotate the responsibility among his senior players until he decided on a permanent appointment. Then, in May, he missed a crucial penalty in the UEFA Champions League final to hand the trophy to Manchester United.
Just a week after his misery in Moscow, Capello's response was to hand the Londoner the armband for the game against USA; a game in which he scored the opening goal in a 2-0 victory. "I think that showed what kind of character I am to the manager, to come back and bounce back like I did after that huge disappointment," said Terry.
Whatever the reason, the Chelsea player did enough to convince the former Roma and Real Madrid supremo of his leadership skills, and he will now find himself leading the team out for England's FIFA World Cup qualifiers. "Maybe that reaction persuaded him, I don't know," guessed Terry. "Only the manager can answer that question. But ."
With the captain's words ringing in his ears, Wayne Rooney reiterated the team's desire to be one of the 32 teams who will make it to South Africa in a little under 650 days' time. "Before every big tournament, fans expect a lot of big things from the players, and the players desperately want to give them something to be happy about," he said.
"Hopefully that can come soon. We always have a point to prove. We believe we have the players to do well in these major tournaments. We have not done so in the past few years, but hopefully this can change for us and we can do well."
The first assignment is against a country whose inhabitants number 71,000, less than the capacity of Wembley, but the main event for England comes four days later against Croatia, the team who denied them a place at EURO 2008. For Rooney, Terry, Capello and England, that game cannot come too soon.
"We have to take on Andorra first, hopefully get the three points and then go on to Croatia," said the Manchester United man. "."
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