Eighteen months after they failed to qualify for Euro 2008, England are once again billing themselves as World Cup contenders.
Five straight wins in the qualifying campaign for next year’s finals have helped to heal the psychological scars of missing out on the last major international tournament and the new mood of confidence was underlined by head coach Fabio Capello on the eve of Saturday’s group six clash with Kazakhstan.
The Italian is confident that his squad — which is virtually unchanged from the group of players who failed under Steve McClaren — is ready to cross swords with the world’s best in South Africa in 12 months time.
“First we have to get through to South Africa but I think we will be a very good team if we achieve that,” Capello said. “We are very strong and we can play against all the best teams of the best countries in the world.
“I am very happy with these players, with this group and I have big confidence in the future.”
Capello’s bullish declaration is bound to send some alarm bells ringing among some of England’s more sceptical fans.
Several players who were at the last World Cup have admitted that the pre-tournament hype about the prospects of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s ‘golden generation’ of English players contributed to their failure to live up to expectations in Germany.
And although Capello has elicited some impressive performances from his side in the qualifiers, the ease with which European champions Spain strolled to a 2-0 victory over England in February should still be fresh enough in the memory to keep his optimism in check.
England are, however, clearly in control of their group and a win here on Saturday would represent another signficant step towards securing the automatic qualifying spot on offer to the group winners.
The five-hour time difference between England and the central Asian Republic does not make life easy for Wayne Rooney and co. but Capello warned that he would not be accepting any excuses for a below par performance against opponents who were beaten 5-1 at Wembley in October.
“At the end of the season, the players are not fresh like when we started,” the Italian said. “But we have to play two very important games against Kazakhstan and Andorra.
“The problems of players, if they are tired or not, is no excuse. We have to play, we have to win and everyone who plays has to be very strong.
“There will be no excuses that we are tired or wanting a holiday. None of that.”
England are without first-choice goalkeeper David James and Manchester United centreback Rio Ferdinand but Capello’s options have been expanded by the return to the international fold of Arsenal’s fleet-footed Theo Walcott, whose hat-trick in the 4-1 win in Croatia was crucial to putting England in their current strong position.
“We are happy that he is back because it is important for us,” acknowledged Capello, who has had to deal with complaints from Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger over the fact that Walcott will join up with the Under-21s for the European Championships in Sweden after the two World Cup games.
The England coach believes Walcott can cope because he missed so much of last season with a shoulder injury.
“Theo is one of the players that played less games last season,” he said. “He was injured for four months and now he has just started to be very fit.
“I understand also all the managers at the start of the season like to have all the team together because pre-season is very important. For this reason, I understand Arsene (Wenger).
“But there are also the Confederation Cup, South American World Cup games and others going on during the summer.”
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