Friendlies usually get a bit of stick. Often seen as pointless and a waste of time or just another opportunity for your club player to get injured, as the Premier League seems to take more and more importance and preference every passing season. As we approach this third International break of the season things should be seen differently here. Battle may well be raging in important play-off matches this evening, but tomorrow’s and Tuesday friendlies are significant ones with Euro 2012 on the horizon.
First up is World and European Champions Spain at Wembley on Saturday before Sweden visit on Tuesday. Both opponents have already qualified for the European Championships so they will present a stern test even though the manager is likely to use these games to find out a little more about the personnel they are thinking of taking to Poland and Ukraine next summer. The Spain game is a big one; they are the best international side in the world, a team where you literally salivate over their team sheet.
This is also a big match for them; the Spanish don’t really have a derby – Portugal, most would think, but the rivalry has never really got going for the Spanish team and fans. If this wasn’t a friendly you would see a different billing for this game, more as La Liga vs. the Premier League. The Spain players see England as a big game and are well up for it and this is how the England team and we England fans should also be approaching the match. We are testing ourselves against the current World and European Cup holders after all.
There is an argument that the strongest side possible should start tomorrow to see how far England have come and how far England need to go if they are to knock Spain from their perch come the summer. Or should this be an occasion for Capello to give untested youth a try? Well on the face of it there are only two senior players who were not selected, in Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney which (fair play) resulted in call ups for Sturridge and Rodwell. Joey Barton may feel aggrieved he, Steve Taylor and Danny Simpson missed out, but to be honest Simpson and Taylor are down the pecking order and Barton’s best hope will be under a new manager. Capello has already said this is a chance to try out a new system and players as we experiment in finding a way to solve the upcoming Rooney problem at Euro 2012.
But should these matches have been used to rather experiment with personnel and young players, knowing that a big defeat to Spain could dent the players’ confidence ahead of a major tournament? With Capello’s reign drawing to a close, does he see it as his job to look out for the future of English football? Maybe not, so has he done enough during his time to leave a legacy that will last beyond Euro 2012?
In 2007, the year before Fabio took over, the England U21’s got to the semi-final of the European Championships and in 2009, the year after Capello took charge of the seniors, they got to the final. How many from those under 21 sides have been promoted during this period? Well James Milner, Adam Johnson, Ashley Young, Joe Hart, Danny Wellbeck, Micah Richards, Theo Walcott, Jack Wiltshire and in this current squad Jack Rodwell and Dean Sturridge. With Andy Carroll also having been capped that makes a total of 11, so I think Capello would have an argument that the transition is well under way and he has laid a solid platform for the next manager to take it on.
And transition it is as there are players that will surely retire from international football after the Euro’s and others that will be discarded even if they want to play on. Steven Gerrard has himself admitted that the Euro’s will probably be his last tournament and the same could be said for the likes of Ashley Cole, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Scott Parker, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry, all 30 or above but all, barring injury will go to the finals.
These friendlies give the perfect chance for Capello to try something new, a different formation; give players on the fringe their opportunity. But why include people like Terry, who could well do with a rest as he must be mentally and physically drained with all that is going on around him and we know what all the others ‘senior’ players bring to the team already. Surely it is essential that we start to give the youth and the other inexperienced players the chance to play the big matches (like Spain) so they won’t be afraid if thrown in at the deep end.
For me there is no doubt Capello will want to go out on a high. The main criticism of him has been the lack of performance at the World Cup in South Africa, where the team didn’t turn up at all. His only remaining goal is to bring home the European Championship. After these two friendlies there are only three more friendly dates before the summer. The time to try new things and be ready to win a major tournament is running out.
He has a proven winning mentality and will enjoy pitting his wits against Spain to see how far England have come under him, yet still being able to have the flexibility to try things out. It will be interesting to see what line up he puts out against Spain; play as senior squad as possible as a true test, but risk defeat and a confidence hit or be daring and shake it up. Capello has already tried to reposition our high expectations by saying how England aren’t a world footballing power anymore and therefore should be on a hiding to nothing come 5.15pm Saturday.
If I was Capello (I would be a lot richer, been laid a few more times and probably have a better tan) my team versus Spain would be: Hart; Walker, Cahill, Jones, Baines, Walcott, Rodwell, Milner, Johnson, Bent, Sturridge – why not give it a go?
This weekend’s game may have been overshadowed by the poppy debacle, but the friendly vs. Spain is a big game. It’s against a big team, it is a big opportunity for a much needed confidence boost, but also a big opportunity to show that the future is bright and that maybe we will again be a force in world football. These matches may be one of the last few times we can mix the dying golden generation with a hungry and talented youth as they prepare to become the senior players.