State of the Nation: Football

THE best that can be said about English football in 2010 is that it started messily thanks to John Terry, went from bad to worse in South Africa and then ended in total humiliation at the hands of Sepp Blatter and Vladimir Putin.

So, in that respect, surely the coming 12 months can, to coin a tune once beloved of Tony Blair and his cronies, only get better?

Let us hope so as a repeat of such an annus horribilis is about as an appealing a prospect as playing the 2022 World Cup in 50 degrees of Qatar summer heat.

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With that in mind, the main hope of all Three Lions loyalists has to be that Fabio Capello can rediscover the Midas touch that gave us all such hope during his first couple of years as England manager.

Just when it all went wrong for the Italian last year is difficult to pinpoint. Was it the launch of the Capello Index? The bizarre way he arrived at his final squad for the World Cup? Insisting on sticking to the practice of not naming his team, and in particular who was in goal, until shortly before kick-off? Or was it, quite simply, that Capello did not have a Plan B in case Wayne Rooney was unable to replicate the form he had shown up until the Spring in a Manchester United shirt?

Whatever the true reason, what is not in doubt is just how poorly England performed in the World Cup – as illustrated by the now all too-familiar period of navel-gazing that followed the 4-1 hammering by Germany in South Africa.

The rebuilding process began once the Euro 2012 qualifiers were underway and, for a time, all went well as Bulgaria were thrashed 4-0 and Switzerland beaten 3-1 in Basel.

Then came Montenegro at Wembley in October and a display every bit as tepid as those that had turned the summer into such a wretched affair for anyone with an English passport.

The upshot of it all is that England entered the New Year with something of a fight on their hands on to qualify for the 2012 finals.

It is, however, a fight they can win – even allowing for a schedule that includes tricky trips to Wales, Bulgaria and Montenegro.

Certainly, Capello has the players at his disposal to emerge triumphantly from Group G come October 11 – providing he makes one or two changes between now and the next qualifier.

Chief among these is sorting out a formation that suits his players, as opposed to sticking rigidly to a 4-4-2 line-up that was shown up to be so out of date last summer that it was a wonder England did not turn up sporting the type of heavy boots that Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews somehow used to lift off the ground long enough to beat an opponent.

Capello, while needing to resist the temptation to dump en masse the 'Golden Generation', must inject some youthful promise in the guise of Jack Wilshere and Andy Carroll, while also finding a way to coax the best out of Rooney.

If he can do that, England can start to dream again.

As for the route to Poland and Ukraine, the remaining three away assignments all carry varying elements of potential danger, not least the March 26 visit to Cardiff that is likely to see the home side raise their game significantly in front of an atmosphere at the Millennium Stadium that seems certain to be more akin to a local derby.

If Capello's side can return from the Principality with all three points then it will set them up nicely for the meeting with the Swiss at Wembley on June 4.

On the same day, Montenegro are back in action at home to Bulgaria – a team they beat 1-0 in Sofia last September. If, as expected, the top two countries in Group G can emerge with maximum points from those fixtures, then England are likely to regain pole position on goal difference with three games to play.

The action will resume on September 2 as England travel to Bulgaria and Montenegro head to Wales for games they would both be expected to win to again maintain the status quo at the top.

Four days later, Capello's side could then move three points clear by beating Gary Speed's Wales at Wembley to set up what is already shaping up to be the group decider in Montenegro.

If the results have gone England's way – and the only one that genuinely worries this correspondent is the game in Cardiff – then a point would be enough to leave Montenegro needing to thrash the Swiss in the final group game four days later to clinch top spot.

Simple, eh? Well, it should be. This being England, however, it is likely to be anything but.