Fabio Capello has set the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ final as the minimum benchmark for English success next summer. Capello has steered England through what appeared to be a tough qualifying section without a single mistake.

Wednesday's five-goal triumph over Croatia represented a staggering fulfilment of the Italian's transformation of an England side that was on its knees after their failure to qualify for UEFA Euro 2008. Capello has no wish to fuel latent expectation that tends to rise ahead of major tournaments.

Indeed, he has already told his players to forget their eight successive Group 6 wins. However, he is not going to downplay his own ambitions. While a place in the final at Ellis Park on 11 July may be asking a lot, considering England have only once competed for the greatest prize in the game, and that was on home soil, Capello sees no reason why it should not be the target.

"Playing in the final would be success," he said. "For now, playing in it will do, rather than winning it. But if people are asking me what my aspiration is, then it is to reach the final.

"I know the expectations will rise. Other people will help that, as well as our results. But that is the past now. It is nothing. For me and the players it is gone."

While England supporters may struggle to dismiss the past year's achievements, for Capello it will not be a problem. When he says results are in the past, he means it. And if the players have learned one thing about the man chosen to replace the hapless Steve McClaren, it is that no-one can feel totally secure about boarding the plane next June.

If people are asking me what my aspiration is, then it is to reach the final.

England coach Fabio Capello

True, it would be folly not to include Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard. Chelsea duo Frank Lampard and John Terry will be in the squad and so will Rio Ferdinand, fitness permitting. Yet even at the back of those five talented minds, there must be an element of doubt, enough to make sure they remain focused and committed for the next eight months.

As for the rest, only the best will do. If Capello detects any lessening in form, his own history as an Italian regular in the build-up to the 1978 FIFA World Cup, only to be axed by Enzo Bearzot prior to departure for Argentina, means there will be no room for sentiment when he names his squad.

"The players and I will stay with our feet on the floor, always," he said. "There is a long way to go before we arrive at the finals and we must go step by step.

"Those eight games mean absolutely nothing now. I know all about England's history. But the most important thing when you go to the World Cup is the physical condition of the players," he said. "The best players have to be fit."

Tests ahead
Capello is certain to experiment in the four games England will play before the season's end, starting in Ukraine next month. A trip to Qatar to face Brazil is also booked for 14 November and he will finalise a base camp, which will possibly be in Rustenburg but definitely at altitude, at the draw on 4 December.

There will also be pre-tournament training in Austria, with the players returning home for two or three days before setting off for what they hope will turn out to be the greatest moment of their lives. The same would be true for Capello, too. His record at Juventus, AC Milan and Real Madrid may be impressive. But he always regarded England as the ultimate challenge.

"Managing the Italian national side was never one of my objectives," said Capello. "My dream was to be here. It was a bigger challenge, the biggest of my career.

"The players are good. The stadiums, the people, the fans," he said. "I never understood why it was impossible to do something in England."