Capello leaves England door open for Owen
Fabio Capello insists he has not closed the door on Michael Owen's international career and a year into his tenure as England manager has admitted the side's progress has surprised him.
Owen became only the fourth England player to score 40 goals for his country 14 months ago when he bagged a brace in a win over Russia that seemed destined to send the Three Lions to Euro 2008.
Unfortunately, Steve McClaren's side could not complete the job and with Owen struck down by a series of muscular problems, plus a dose of mumps, the Newcastle United man's only chance to impress coach Capello came in a 45-minute cameo against France in March, the only game England have lost since the Italian got the job.
A suspicion prevails that Capello does not want a 'mere' goalscorer in his squad - that the Italian feels strikers should contribute much more to the team.
It is hard to disagree with the Italian's philosophy at the end of a successful first year in charge which that concluded with victory over Germany in Berlin on Wednesday, even if the goals in the 2-1 win were claimed by central defenders Matthew Upson and John Terry.
For now the England coach can hide behind the fact Owen does not meet his strict fitness criteria for international duty.
''The door is open for every player,'' confirmed Capello. ''At this moment I am selecting the players who are in the best physical condition. To play at international level you have to be 100%. It is impossible to play at 60%.
''Owen did not come because in the last two games he played 20 minutes and 50 minutes. If he was okay, he would play all the game but he is not okay for the manager of Newcastle.''
On succeeding McClaren Capello knew he had taken on a difficult task, but it was not until he watched his new charges labour to victory against Switzerland in February that he realised how difficult it was going to be.
Nine months on from that unconvincing night at Wembley, England went to Berlin and deservedly beat Germany. In between they put four past Croatia in Zagreb and won four successive World Cup qualifiers for the first time in their history.
Even Capello admits the form reversal is staggering, particularly when he recalls that 2-1 win over a Swiss team destined to exit Euro 2008 - which England did not even qualify for - at the group stage.
''We are further forward than I thought we would be after our first year,'' he said. ''I always watched the Premier League, so I knew the players. But when we played against Switzerland I understood the work was going to be very hard. It was a very big job.''
Plenty of thoughts went through Capello's mind in the days afterwards as he analysed what he had taken on, but depression was not one of them.
''I was not depressed,'' he added. ''It was a challenge but that is the reason I am here. I am very happy because we have taken one step forward with every game.''
''We have to keep improving,'' added Capello. ''We always have to do that. We have done a lot of work and improved a lot of things. We are at a different level now compared to where we were before. But the last stage is not easy.''