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Page last updated at 05:33 GMT, Friday, 10 October 2008 06:33 UK

England's seven-year itch

World Cup qualifier, Group Six, England v Kazakhstan
Venue: Wembley Stadium Date: Saturday, 11 October Kick-off: 1715 BST Coverage: ITV 1 and BBC Radio 5 Live, text commentary on BBC Sport website

Clockwise, from top: The scoreboard in Munich in 2001; England coach Fabio Capello; Theo Walcott, who scored a hat-trick in Croatia; Michael Owen, hat-trick hero in Munich; then England boss Sven-Gora
The scoreboard reflects England's thumping win in Munich in 2001; (left to right) then boss Sven-Goran Eriksson; Michael Owen; Theo Walcott, Fabio Capello

By Jonathan Stevenson

The hard work for England coach Fabio Capello may have only just begun.

While the country basks in the euphoria of a stunning, nightmare-banishing 4-1 victory in Croatia in September, Capello must focus his mind and those of all his players on completing the job and qualifying for the World Cup.

After the doom and gloom of the Steve McClaren era and the two catastrophic beatings at the hands of the Croats that culminated in England's failure to qualify for Euro 2008, September's Zagreb triumph has put the national side firmly in the country's good books again.

England showed they are a mighty team, probably the best in Europe

Croatia coach Slaven Bilic

Theo Walcott's dazzling hat-trick has made him the new darling of the tabloids and already pundits and commentators are queuing up to explain why they think England can go all the way and win the World Cup in South Africa in 2010.

Somehow, though, it feels like we have been here before. All too recently.

In 2001, England's first foreign coach Sven-Goran Eriksson was in the process of enchanting his new public as the charismatic Swede attempted to reverse the national team's declining fortunes and lead them to the 2002 World Cup.

Victory over arch-rivals Germany in Munich in the September would put Eriksson's side in pole position to qualify but against a team that had ended England's major tournament hopes in 1970, 1990 and 1996, the chances were considered slim.

5 Sept, 2001: 2-0 v Albania
6 Oct, 2001: 2-2 v Greece
10 Nov, 2001: 1-1 v Sweden
13 Feb, 2002: 1-1 v Netherlands
27 Mar, 2002: 1-2 v Italy
17 Apr, 2002: 4-0 v Paraguay
21 May, 2002: 1-1 v S Korea
26 May, 2002: 2-2 v Cameroon
2 June, 2002: 1-1 v Sweden
7 June, 2002: 1-0 v Argentina

Step forward 21-year-old Michael Owen, who scored a magnificent hat-trick as England stunned the football world with a thumping 5-1 victory.

In the space of 90 crazy minutes, England went from also-rans to would-be world champions but they also became weighed down by the enormous expectation the Munich masterclass produced.

Former Arsenal defender Martin Keown, a regular in the England squad at the time, says Capello and his team must prepare to guard against the same hysteria.

"English expectation always goes too high, doesn't it?" Keown, capped 43 times by his country, told BBC Sport.

"There is always a danger with the English public that we get carried away after one big result and think we might have a chance of winning the World Cup.

"We've just thrashed Croatia, we're coming back to Wembley, to our home ground, and you can already feel the expectation changing.

"We're now hearing that the Kazakhstan game is a foregone conclusion, that it's just about how many goals we'll score. But we haven't even qualified yet, we haven't done anything."

One thing Capello will be keen to guard against is complacency.

Thank goodness Fabio is the manager of the England side. Everything around England does change after this result

FA chairman Lord Triesman

After England's demolition job in Germany in 2001, they won only three of their next 10 matches and bowed out of the World Cup in the Far East at the quarter-final stage with a lifeless display against Brazil.

On several previous occasions, a magnificent England victory has served only to increase the ensuing disappointment.

In 1987 they won a qualifier 4-1 in Belgrade against a highly fancied Yugoslavia side before losing all three group games at a calamitous Euro 1988.

And at Euro 1996, England produced one of their finest exhibitions of football with a 4-1 drubbing of the Netherlands at Wembley before fortunately stumbling past Spain in the last eight and then losing to Germany in the semi-finals.

This time, the challenge for Capello is to ensure Zagreb is not another false dawn for English football.

The Italian and his staff are still concerned by the fragile confidence of their players after two years of largely justified criticism and they are under no illusions that Croatia's second-half sending off had an important effect on the final margin of victory in the Maksimir Stadium.

As Capello said in the immediate aftermath: "People must remember, this was only the second game. It was a good performance, a good result but it's only one victory and nothing more. It is just a start."

Regardless, England now take on Kazakhstan on Saturday having given their fans a renewed sense of optimism and having intensified the pressure on themselves to perform.

Martin Keown celebrates England's draw with Greece in 2001 with David Beckham
Martin Keown and David Beckham celebrate 2002 World Cup qualification

Keown admits that in October 2001 - only a month after Munich - when England played Greece at Old Trafford knowing a win would take them to the World Cup finals, the players struggled psychologically to cope under the pressure.

"After the shock of the Munich performance, the Greece game was a little bit of a reality check for us after all the euphoria," added Keown.

"It was a very big occasion, a difficult game to play in, probably the most difficult I remember playing in for England.

"It was a surreal occasion, I remember it seeming very difficult to influence the game, despite being on the pitch. It felt almost like it was falling out of our hands before David Beckham came to our rescue with his late free-kick.

"I also remember it was as close to a Wembley experience away from Wembley as I ever remember.

"There are always extra nerves playing at Wembley, it always seemed harder playing there than elsewhere for England and that day it felt a bit like playing at Wembley."

Capello will already understand where Keown is coming from. Only in September, the Italian suggested he felt his team was not gaining an advantage by playing at Wembley.

"We have not played with confidence at Wembley and I hope that after Croatia the fans and the players will be together this time," stated Capello.

"This is important because we need the help of the supporters. Before, when the first pass went wrong, the fans were restless and didn't help us. Now I hope it will be better."


If the supporters' expectations can be kept under control, England stand a much better chance of building on the Croatia game than they did seven years ago post-Munich.

England and Capello have freely admitted they are nowhere near the finished article yet, with the goalkeeping spot and a lack of strikers the principal concerns in the camp.

Michael Owen, despite 40 goals in only 89 caps, has been left out of the last two squads, with Capello concerned about his lack of involvement in games when he doesn't find the net.

In 19-year-old Walcott, England have a player with the kind of blistering pace capable of settling any game on his own but know they will have to closely follow Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger in slowly nurturing a player who still only has four Premier League goals to his name.

It was perhaps surprising, then, that Capello chose arguably the finest footballer of all time to compare Walcott to after naming his England squad on Sunday.

"Age is not important. What's important is the quality, the confidence," insisted Capello.

"It's a stupid example but Diego Maradona played when he was 16 - because he was ready. Theo is ready for sure."

Maybe Capello is simply trying to make sure the sell-out crowd at Wembley on Saturday is right behind his team from the first whistle until the last.

We wanted revenge. We remembered them knocking us out of Euro 2008 and their celebrations. This has has softened the blow

England striker Wayne Rooney

Keown says the England fans can play a crucial role in getting behind the side but also in trying to keep the players grounded.

"We have an obsession in this country with looking ahead but at the moment all they need to be focusing on is qualifying," he said.

"The players don't look comfortable playing at Wembley right now, there are boos very early on if someone makes a small mistake. The fans must be realistic and must try to make Wembley feel like home.

"It does look like this England team have made some big improvements very quickly and they have learned what Capello wants from them.

"I'm sure he will be explicit in the brief he gives the players because if they follow him that attention to detail is what they most want from him in return."

And surely the Italian who has won Serie A and La Liga titles will not be getting carried away by one result?

"What you've got to remember is that when you work with foreign people they have got a very different story," commented Keown, who also worked with Arsenal's French manager Wenger.

"They always get amused when England have one good result and then everyone talks about winning something.

"Capello appears to be an uncompromising character, he knows what he wants and it will be done his way or not at all, so there will be no regrets on his behalf."

After so many false dawns, one must hope England have finally found a coach capable of taking them to even greater heights.

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see also
World Cup 2010 qualifying
01 Dec 09 |  Football
Croatia fine not enough - Heskey
09 Oct 08 |  Internationals
Terry doubtful for England match
09 Oct 08 |  Internationals
Lampard eyes midfield improvement
07 Oct 08 |  Internationals
Pick your England XI
31 Aug 07 |  Internationals
Kazakhstan blinded by World Cup fantasy
08 Oct 08 |  Internationals
Croatia 1-4 England
10 Sep 08 |  Internationals
Capello hails England 'courage'
11 Sep 08 |  Internationals
Awesome England thrash Germany
01 Sep 01 |  Football
Owen the destroyer
02 Sep 01 |  Football
Beckenbauer hails 'best ever' England
03 Sep 01 |  World Cup 2002

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