Battered England opens qualifying against Bulgaria
England takes the first step toward restoring its damaged reputation following its World Cup mishap when qualifying for the 2012 European Championship begins against Bulgaria on Friday.
While Fabio Capello has come out fighting following the 4-1 second-round loss to Germany in June, the deluge of disapproval about him staying in the job persists across the English media.
Capello’s image has gone from disciplinarian to ditherer in the eyes of those who showered praise on him during a World Cup qualification campaign that produced nine wins out of 10.
The Italian coach will need his players to rediscover that form and make an equally emphatic start to Euro 2012 qualifying, with the Bulgaria fixture at Wembley followed by another Group G match at Switzerland on Tuesday.
But Capello’s plans have been rocked by injuries, with veterans John Terry and Frank Lampard ruled out and Peter Crouch forced to withdraw from the squad with a back injury. Defender Phil Jagielka is also struggling with an ankle injury.
"Four points from six would be satisfactory but we are trying to get six," midfielder Gareth Barry said. "They are both going to be really tough games. We have to perform well."
Tepid displays since the World Cup warmup matches have done little to endear the players to the irate fans.
"We have to go up a level for the next two qualifiers," Barry said. "The manager used the last two games to try a few things and blood a few youngsters and have a look at a couple of formations, but these games have come around so quickly."
As he sets about resuscitating England, Capello has prioritized shedding the squad of the older players – including announcing the end of 35-year-old David Beckham’s international career – and developing young players.
Still, there was a familiar feel to the squad that has named on Sunday.
After being dropped for last month’s friendly against Hungary, there were recalls for defender Matthew Upson and midfielders Michael Carrick and Shaun Wright-Phillips, while goalkeeper Scott Carson returns after a near two-year absence.
But Jack Wilshere, the 18-year-old Arsenal midfielder, is back with the under-21s after making his debut in the lackluster 2-1 victory over Hungary.
While goalkeeping appeared to be England’s problem area at the World Cup, the future looks bright with the 23-year-old Joe Hart excelling for Manchester City at the start of the season.
"Joe’s confidence is sky-high at the moment," said City and England teammate Barry. "He is performing very well for us at City. It is the same as (winger) Adam (Johnson), if he gets a run of games at this level he will go from strength to strength."
While Johnson is only now establishing himself in the England squad aged 23, fellow winger Theo Walcott – two years younger – has been around the Three Lions camp since the 2006 World Cup when he was taken to Germany but never played.
Despite all his promise, the Arsenal player has only delivered in spurts for club and country. A hat trick early in World Cup qualifying against Croatia was a distant memory by the time he was omitted from the South Africa squad.
"Of course I was angry," Walcott said. "You want to play in the biggest competitions in the world. You want to play against the best and you want to play for England. But I couldn’t point fingers at anyone – I had to blame myself because the form wasn’t there at the end of the season."
But after dazzling against Hungary last month, Walcott has hit four goals in three games for Arsenal and is determined to start delivering on a regular basis.
"It seems like I’ve been around for a long time," Walcott said. "There’s been a lot of ups and downs but I feel like I am definitely a better player."