Looks like its gonna be Capello

Is the long national nightmare over? The news out of England points to Italian Fabio Capello as the man set to replace Steve McClaren as England manager. If the FA can tie up the details of Capello’s contract—a big if with this crew—the former Milan, Juventus, Roma, and Real Madrid coach will take over a team that twice threw away qualification for next summer’s European Championships with defeats when a solitary draw would have seen them through.

 

McClaren’s disastrous decisions in both the Croatia fixtures, experimenting with an untried 3-5-2 formation in Zagreb and an untested Scott Carson in the return, were a key factor in England’s ultimate failure. But Michael Owen is right, not a single Croat in their starting XI would have made it into even the injury- and suspension-depleted line-up that ran out for the Three Lions at Wembley. For all the obsessing over the manager, soccer is a players’ game. Preparing and selecting the team are important, but once the coach turns in the team sheet, the players have 90 minutes to settle things on the pitch.

 

Capello will start with a leg up on the first foreign manager to take the reigns of the English national team. The Swede Sven Goran Eriksson was expected to be the final piece to the puzzle that finally took the supposed golden generation of English players to the winners’ circle at a major tournament. Never able to live up to those lofty expectation, yet Eriksson’s three quarterfinal losses—two on penalties and once to the eventual champion—now look like stunning achievements compared to McClaren’s bungling qualification campaign. Consequently, expectations will be reasonable.

 

Challenges do remain, however. Can Michael Owen still perform at an elite level or is he simple too fragile to be relied upon to score goals? Will Wayne Rooney recover the form that dazzled at Euro 2004? Can Rooney, Lampard, and Gerrard all play together in the center of the park? Who will play on the wings and are they fast enough to stretch elite International defenses? Are any of the midfielders capable of maintaining possession and controlling the pace of the game? And of course, who is going to play in goal?

 

Fortunately for Capello, he wont have to play a competitive fixture until next September, giving him plenty of time to work through these questions. With his credentials, he will probably be able to come up with at least enough of the answers to make England competitive. The rest will be up to the players.

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Finally Benitez picked Liverpool’s best available XI

Normally, beating a team lying in 13th in League 1 whose star youngster wasn’t fit enough to be in the starting lineup isn’t a great accomplishment. But Liverpool’s 4-0 win at Marseille, a vitally important victory in the first in a series of three huge matches over eight days that will decide the direction of the remainder of the Reds’ season, their activity in the transfer market, and the fate of their manager, could be even more significant because it demonstrated the potential of the team when the right players are put in the right positions.

Benitez has taken a great deal of stick in the press over his team selection, most recently being lambasted for his team sheet against Reading and the “surrender” of taking off Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres in the second half down 3-1. I find much of that grief to be typical media hyperbole, especially so the case at Reading given the column inches devoted to the importance of the upcoming games in three competitions, Marseille in the Champions League, Man U in the Prem, and Chelsea in the Carling Cup. Isn’t it prudent to keep more than just one eye on those games while picking your team to face a struggling bottom-table side even if they have a decent record at the Madejski?

My criticism of Benitez is not against his rotation policy in general, it is that when he moves players in and out of the lineup he often fails to keep a balance of skills on the pitch. That was true at the weekend with a midfield trio of Gerrard, Javier Mascherano and Momo Sissoko. For all of Gerrard’s qualities, keeping possession often eludes him. That hole in his game is only a serious problem when his teammates can’t make up for it, and no one will argue that the calamitous passing of Sissoko or the wasteful actions of Mascherano can hide Gerrard’s errors. Liverpool’s midfield just gave the ball away too often to control the game and they paid the price for it.

At the Stade Velodrome it was a different story. Injuries precluded the selection of Daniel Agger, Xabi Alonso, or Steve Finnan—regulars who would likely be automatic selections for a game of this magnitude—but this Liverpool side fit and worked together like few other setups have, particularly the midfielders and strikers. Gerrard and Mascherano were again in the middle, but they were complimented by wingers that are comfortable and skilled with the ball at their feet. Harry Kewell and Yossi Benayoun not only kept possession, but were dangerous when they had it, forcing the Marseille defenders to cover the whole pitch. That opened up space for Torres, a handful in any circumstances, and Gerrard, whose trademark surging runs found fewer men in neon orange blocking his path. Even the energy and industry of Torres’ strike partner Dirk Kuyt was put to its maximum utility, constantly harrying the defenders allowing Gerrard a freer role and clearing the way for Torres to terrorize the defense.

So who will play in Sunday’s showdown with Manchester United? The win at Marseille Tuesday provides the blueprint—a balanced team on the pitch with game changers on the bench. Whether or not Benitez follows this formula for success rather than a simplistic look at rotation is how we should judge the manager.