Defoe won't start on Wednesday... and here's why
Published 18:10 06/09/09 By By Martin Lipton
Fabio Capello has always insisted he will pick his England players on their form for club and country.
But when Capello sends out the team he wants to finally banish the ghosts of 2007 against Croatia, it will demonstrate the one exception which proves that general rule.
As Jermain Defoe seized the moment once again, by instantly unleashing the right-foot strike that ensured England head into the match that matters with winning momentum, the Spurs man could rightly claim he has done all he can.
Five goals in three halves off the bench, including three in two 45-minute England run-outs this season, plus the four he has scored for Spurs, demonstrate without doubt that Defoe is the man on fire.
Yet for all Capello’s claims to the contrary, it will count for nothing when the Tottenham striker heads for the bench, rather than the pitch, at 8pm on Wednesday.
Although Capello may genuinely mean what he says about form, it does not apply to one key factor, which is getting the best out of his two most crucial attacking assets.
Capello knows that England are nothing like the team they can be unless Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard are fitted into a shape and system that gives them licence to thrill.
And while beaten Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek was far from the only spectator who left Wembley on Saturday convinced Defoe should start against Slaven Bilic’s men, you can guarantee it will be Emile Heskey wearing the No 9 shirt rather than the Spurs star.
Capello insisted he is delighted by Defoe’s goal return of eight in 10 appearances under him, especially as they come at a rate of one every 52 minutes, a rate twice as good as even Rooney’s under the Italian.
But what matters more, without question, is the overall function of a side that can make it an unprecedented eight straight qualifying victories and seal a place in South Africa this week - and that means sticking with the tried and trusted.
Capello said: “Heskey, for me, played a good first half against Slovenia and I only changed him at half-time to see a different style of play.
“The team I pick depends on the players and on the moment. But the players do a lot of movement around Heskey.
“When the ball arrives at Heskey, the movement of Rooney and Gerrard is very dangerous every time and that is especially important when you are playing against physical defenders.”
Recalling the brutal treatment handed out by the Croats in Zagreb, it is clear Capello wants his line leader to be a man who can look after himself without reacting to provocation, strengths that Heskey, having scored one fewer in his entire 55-cap England career than Defoe has claimed in his last nine appearances, possesses in abundance.
Heskey was arguably England’s best performer in the first half on Saturday, although Capello’s men had Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson to thank for handing them the softest of openers, Frank Lampard slamming home from the spot after Rooney’s tangle with defender Bostjan Cesar was bizarrely seen as a penalty.
Rooney could, probably should have had a hat-trick by the end and John Terry hit the bar but in the end Defoe’s deflected strike just after the hour after linking with fellow substitute and Spurs club-mate Aaron Lennon was to prove decisive even after the sloppy defending that allowed Zlatan Ljubijankic to nod home late on.
Slovenia coach Kek said: “Capello should think seriously before the Croatia game about picking Defoe. Lennon and Defoe worked well together. Defoe has been playing well for three or four weeks for Tottenham.”
Capello, however, joking that “perhaps he would be tired if he played from the first minute”, will not budge from his opinion, reinforcing the position as he added: “It is about the moment. I am happy. If he plays the second half, he has scored goals. That’s good.”
Defoe himself admitted: "Everyone wants to play. You don't want to sit on the bench. It is a massive game against Croatia."
But for all Defoe's efforts and goals, it is Lennon who looks likely to be the only change for Wednesday, taking the place of the woeful Shaun Wright-Phillips, with Joleon Lescott’s 26 minutes showing why Matthew Upson will start alongside John Terry.
Wright-Phillips’ tactical deficiencies helped expose Glen Johnson’s frailties, while Lennon was, as Capello agreed, “positive” both in attack and defence.
Capello added: “I put the players on the pitch to understand the situation of some players. I studied a lot in this game, like the other friendly games. This is my style of work.
“For this reason, I put first of all Wright-Phillips and then afterwards Lennon to understand the different style, the different moments. And they understand well.
“Also I put James Milner on for the first time at Wembley to understand psychologically the difference between playing here and playing away.”
Capello knows that he will have plenty of time - six matches including the final two qualifiers in Ukraine and at home to Belarus - to experiment if his players can get the job done on Wednesday.
But he warned: “Croatia better now and more of a threat than last year in Zagreb. When we played against them before, they felt they were sure to win. This is the big difference this time.
“The next game will be here, with big expectations on us. It will not be an easy game. We respect them and we have to have good organisation so that we can play to win from the first moment of the match.”
That first minute will involve Heskey, not Defoe. Because Capello is, and always will be, his own man.