Fitness of Capello's main men key to any chance of success

SUBTLETY is not something modern football is very good at, as the Football Association illustrated vividly on Monday night at Wembley.

The final whistle had just blown to signal the end of the last warm-up game on home soil and the England players were embarking on a lap of honour when, suddenly, the voice of Gary Barlow started to boom out across the PA system.

"If you stay by my side," sang the Take That frontman as Fabio Capello's men returned the applause of those in the stands, "We can rule the world."

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The implication was clear – get behind the Three Lions in South Africa and we will bring the World Cup home.

Oh, if only life was as simple as the FA seem to believe.

Certainly, much of the 90 minutes that had preceded the lap of honour had done little to suggest that world domination was just around the corner for England.

Okay, a lively Mexico had been beaten 3-1 by a home side missing the four players who nine days earlier had helped Chelsea win the FA Cup as well as David James.

There had also been a couple of positives to glean from a warm night in north London, namely Peter Crouch again underlining his nuisance value and goalscoring potential plus Robert Green displaying the sort of agility that suggests the West Ham goalkeeper is hitting form at just the right time.

Both seized their chance in admirable fashion, giving Capello a timely nudge ahead of the opening World Cup group game against the USA on June 12.

Less welcome for the Italian, however, will have been the confirmation that if England are to achieve anything in South Africa then a clean bill of health for his first choice XI is imperative.

Walking away from Wembley an hour or so after the final whistle, it was tempting to believe that the biggest winners from the defeat of Mexico had actually been those who had been confined to the stands for the penultimate warm-up friendly.

Ashley Cole and John Terry were sorely missed in a back four that was given a lot of trouble by a visiting side who attacked with pace and verve.

Certainly, Leighton Baines and Ledley King did not measure up to the Chelsea pair – even if they looked capable of being decent understudies should they, as expected, make the final squad of 23.

King, in particular, had a difficult first half alongside a hesitant Rio Ferdinand, though credit is due to the Spurs man for improving markedly after the interval when paired with Jamie Carragher. Similarly, Baines also seemed more confident and composed the longer the game went on.

Another whose absence on Monday night was keenly felt was Gareth Barry, especially as Michael Carrick failed abysmally to match the control and order of the Manchester City midfielder's game.

With that in mind, it is to be hoped that the ankle injury sustained by Barry against Tottenham Hotspur on May 5 clears up or Carrick, who has been disappointing for his club all season, may well make the cut for the final 23, which will be made next Tuesday, by default.

Likewise, surely even the misguided fools who still choose to boo Frank Lampard's name when on England duty at Wembley cannot have failed to notice how badly his presence was missed in central midfield.

James Milner, who will surely be on the plane to South Africa through his ability to fill a variety of positions, battled manfully without exerting undue influence on a remarkably open game where play raged from one end to the other.

But there was no sign of the spark that Lampard invariably brings to the England engine room when playing alongside Barry.

In fact, such was the lack of invention through the middle that Steven Gerrard, who Capello wants to start on the left, kept drifting inside in an attempt to make things happen. An upshot of this was Baines often being left exposed by the swift attacking intent of the Mexicans.

Put bluntly, England, missing three key players due to manager Capello's insistence on resting those involved in the FA Cup final, simply did not reach the heights that will be needed from them to prosper come the World Cup.

And that is the crux of the problem facing the Three Lions. If the first choice XI – Green; Johnson, Ferdinand, Terry, Cole; Lennon, Lampard, Barry, Gerrard; Crouch, Rooney – remains fit, fine.

But if one or two key performers in that line-up are ruled out through injury, well, any hopes of England justifying the choice of accompanying music for Monday's lap of honour at Wembley seem remote.