Fabio Capello has dropped the strongest hint yet that David Beckham will be on the plane to South Africa for next summer's FIFA World Cup finals. Beckham was only on the pitch for the last half hour of England's final qualifier, a 3-0 win over Belarus at Wembley that made it nine wins out of ten for Capello's squad in Group 6. But he made enough of an impression to collect the man-of-the-match award and Capello noted Beckham's ability to come off the bench and influence matches.
The 34-year-old may soon agree another loan move to AC Milan for the second half of this season, with the hope of ensuring he is operating at the kind of level England's Italian coach regards as essential if he is to be involved in what would be his fourth FIFA World Cup.
"With Beckham, the most important thing is that he has to play," Capello said. "For me it is very important because Beckham, when he plays, whether it is five minutes, 20 minutes or half an hour, he always plays very well. He is focused on the game. This is important. Sometimes players when they come on have difficulty to enter the game, but David always plays very well."
Beckham's short corner a minute after he had come on led to Shaun Wright-Phillips scoring England's second goal and he also struck the post in the closing minutes of the match. But the decision to name him the game's outstanding player would have come as a surprise to Peter Crouch, who scored England's other two goals, and the impressive Gareth Barry, who created both of the Tottenham Hotspur forward's strikes.
When he plays, whether it is five minutes, 20 minutes or half an hour, he always plays very well.
Capello would not be drawn on whether Crouch's double would force him to reconsider his preference for Emile Heskey as a first-choice partner for Wayne Rooney, who missed Wednesday's match with a calf injury.
"I know Peter Crouch very well, I know very well the other players. He is one part of the squad, not more," he said. "It will depend on the game we are playing and the style we want to play, which players are on the pitch."
Crouch has now claimed 18 goals in 35 international appearances, a record that contrasts markedly with Heskey's seven goals from 57 caps. England's opener came after Barry had sent Gabriel Agbonlahor to the byline, from where he delivered a low cross that Crouch prodded home. Further half-chances followed for both strikers, but Capello was soon looking irate on the touchline as England's tempo and concentration levels dipped.
John Terry resorted to shirt pulling to prevent Sergei Kornilenko from getting away from him on the edge of the box, and the resulting free-kick allowed Sergei Omelyanchuk to test Ben Foster, who needed a second attempt to gather the drive. Foster looked more assured in taking Omelyanchuk's swerving drive cleanly just short of the hour mark, by which time Beckham was preparing to make an entry that was greeted by the biggest cheer of the night.
The 34-year-old's immediate impact owed as much to his reputation as his technical prowess. With the Belarus defence anticipating one of his in-swinging corners from the left, they neglected to pay any attention to the unmarked Wright-Phillips. Collecting Beckham's short ball, the winger skipped past Belarus's captain Aleksandr Kulchy and found the far corner of the net from the edge of the area.
Beckham had the crowd cheering again with a 40-yard pass on to the chest of Crouch. The striker was unable to make the most of a promising position, but Beckham had provided a reminder of what Capello sees in him. Foster also had a good evening and the Manchester United goalkeeper had to produce a strong left hand to keep out Omelyanchuk's close range drive at the end of the visitors' best move of the night.
Like the opener, England's third goal started with a fine pass from Barry, this time for Carlton Cole, whose shot was parried by Yury Zhevnov into the path of Crouch, who gratefully accepted the invitation to stake his claim for a seat alongside Beckham on the plane to South Africa.