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Oct 12, 2012

Old habits die hard for Capello

MOSCOW, Russia -- When Fabio Capello was unveiled as Russia manager in July, one of the most astute questions put to him by the press was from an Englishman, BBC Moscow correspondent Daniel Sandford. Since the 66-year-old Capello quit the England job because of political interference -- from the FA, which meddled in his choice of captain -- why, Sandford mused, did Capello take a job in Russia, a country where personal autonomy is never guaranteed? (Especially if you're a football manager earning a reported $12.5 million per year.)

Capello declined to comment, but the point was made: While the Italian had swapped London for Moscow, the change of scenery might not herald an entirely fresh start. And indeed, particularly in the wake of Russia's 1-0 victory over Portugal at Luzhniki Stadium on Friday, the parallels between Capello's current and previous tenures in international management look uncanny.

The win over Portugal was a perfect case in point. It was a victory largely born 11 months earlier at Wembley when Capello's England side gave up 71 percent possession and 21 shots but still managed to beat World and European champion Spain 1-0 in a friendly international.

At his prematch press call, Capello was quick to emphasize the quality of the Portuguese side that has shot up to third in the world this month (Russia is ranked 12th).

And from kickoff on a chilly, rainy Friday evening in Moscow, it was clear that the Italian was content to give up possession and territory to Paulo Bento's side, relying on those same smash-and-grab tactics from last November.

Funnier yet is that it worked to perfection. An early goal from Aleksandr Kerzhakov, who capitalised on some awful positional play from centre half Bruno Alves to burst through the middle and score, was the signal for Russia to batten down the hatches. Allowing the Portuguese 61 percent of possession -- though it seemed like much, much more as the players in white patiently passed the ball around -- and giving up 12 shots to their own tally of eight, Russia sapped the life out of the away side. Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani on either wing were free to dance down the touchline in their own half, yet were swarmed as soon as they reached the final third. Capello made life even more difficult -- and turned the game into a rather turgid affair -- by withdrawing the goal scorer Kerzhakov with 25 minutes left and introducing a fifth defender, Andrey Eshchenko. By the end Ronaldo was waving the white flag (as David Villa did at Wembley) and the Russian supporters went home happy, though by no means entertained.

That made it three wins from Capello's first three competitive fixtures, and with a home game against Azerbaijan to come, you would expect Russia to make it four in a row. The Italian's record in qualifying for major tournaments is nothing short of outstanding, another virtue he showed first with England. Capello's only qualifying defeat came at the end of England's World Cup 2010 campaign (against Ukraine) when its place in South Africa was already assured. Portugal may well inflict a second defeat on Capello when Russia travels there next June, but on this evidence Ronaldo & Co. will have to reckon with the 66-year-old's tactical mastery.

However, alongside the positives, the hangover from Capello's time as England coach continues to weigh somewhat heavily on his work in Russia. The language problem that so irked English journalists has, if anything, gotten worse. Capello told UEFA's official website last week of his troubles learning Russian. "Here everything is written in Cyrillic," he said. "It's difficult to read; learning the alphabet is hard, so I always need a translator." Asked in the buildup to Friday's game whether he was taking Russian lessons, Capello responded that he had only just been given a textbook to learn from -- three months after first taking the job? Somebody sack his tutor! He added that he "doesn't like getting words wrong, so wait a bit" for a first interview in Russian. The chances of him ever giving one, frankly, are slim.

Eyebrows have been raised, too, about some of Capello's squad selections. Granted, the Italian has so far been way ahead of his predecessor, Dick Advocaat, who was renowned for having a few favorites and overlooking many worthy potential squad members. But Capello's selection of Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, the former Everton player who is currently battling for a starting berth at Spartak Moscow, smacks of a man with only a vague knowledge of the players at his disposal. Moreover, the continued absence of Reading's Pavel Pogrebnyak, who has been in good goal-scoring form since arriving in England in January, is another sore point. In many ways, these selection troubles are reminiscent of Capello's time in England, particularly the squad he took to the World Cup in South Africa, which included the hopelessly out-of-form Emile Heskey but not Theo Walcott, hero of the 4-1 away win in Croatia earlier in that qualifying cycle. Every manager cops some flak for his selections, but Capello's unique brand of stubbornness continues to attract critical commentary.

And then there's the captaincy, the hottest of potatoes. Given that Roy Hodgson has been unable to break the curse of the England captain's armband, it's perhaps unfair to use it as a stick with which to beat Capello. Nevertheless, if the Italian thought he had left such issues behind when he boarded the plane for Moscow in the summer, he was wrong.

At that July unveiling, Capello told the press he had yet to meet with the then-incumbent, Andrey Arshavin, but suggested he would retain the Arsenal midfielder as his skipper. Barely a month later Capello had stripped Arshavin of the captaincy, partially a reaction to his drop in club form -- but also, no doubt, after learning of Arshavin's fall from grace in the eyes of Russian fans. Many were deeply angry when Arshavin was filmed after Russia's elimination from Euro 2012 telling a disappointed supporter that it was "their problem" if the team had not met their expectations.

On the surface, Arshavin's replacement, Igor Denisov, was an easy choice. The 28-year-old has led Zenit St Petersburg's midfield for several years and according to Capello, "drives his partners onwards and has a certain weight within the dressing-room." Yet Denisov's personal history suggests that, like his choice of John Terry, Capello may have picked the wrong man. A catalog of indiscretions, from fistfights in nightclubs to fistfights with coaches -- and even dishing out a broken nose to his driving instructor -- have tarnished Denisov's reputation as a midfielder of serious repute. A fortnight ago, Capello's captaincy bug bit again as Denisov was ordered to train with Zenit's youth team after refusing to play a league match over a financial dispute. A winner he may be, but a captain? Despite several safer options, Capello has again plumped for a controversial choice, and if it hasn't already, it may prove his undoing as it did in England.

Still, for now Russians are happy with the Italian's work. For a country starved of footballing success at the international level -- despite so much water under the bridge in the years since their third place at Euro 2008, which remains a cultural touchstone -- $12.5 million and a few disputes over the captain's armband are a small price to pay for morale-boosting victories.

That said, Russian fans should take heed of Capello's time in England as a reminder of what could go wrong. England also began its 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign with three straight victories (it actually managed eight in a row in the end), but all that was forgotten after the Three Lions' horrific showing on and off the pitch in South Africa. Russians in general (and Capello in particular) will be hoping that in this regard, history does not end up repeating itself.