Out with the new, in with the old
Always a divider of footballing opinion, Frank Lampard is an unsympathetic character to many but a hero to others. International weeks can raise a microscope to a player, in the absence of much else in the way of news. On Friday, Lampard's omission in Sofia was cause for much merriment, only for a barrage of return fire to be aimed by those who still believe in him.
The fulcrum of Chelsea's achievements in the Roman era, his worth as a club player is vast, and one of Andre Villas Boas' greatest tasks will be to ease through his succession, should Lampard's fellow 33-year-old be given time. But before that day comes, it is expected that an England manager must eventually call time on Lampard's international career before he becomes a cap centurion. Fabio Capello is not yet that man. Lampard, a player who has always made himself available to his country when his erstwhile partner and sometime rival in Steven Gerrard has not been able to do so, may still bring dependability, yet can no longer provide the threat that once led a tabloid newspaper to use the motif "Super Frank, super goals".
Here is a player who has made much of supposedly limited gifts, and those silly enough (and sure of themselves) to ridicule his physique should be chided by the fitness levels that delivered him through hundreds of consecutive games for club and country and allowed him to score many a late goal while opponents tired. An example to all those players not blessed with rapier pace or bewitching ball control, he is a model of dedication for the modern footballer; hard work has made him a hugely decorated multi-millionaire. In the face of early accusations of nepotism when he played for his uncle Harry and dad Frank at West Ham, it was an iron-hard application and strength of mind that got him to the top. However, as age and injuries have dictated, that summit has now been descended from.
The ease with which a Lampard-less England blew away Bulgaria signalled that perhaps this could already be a post-Frank era. However, pragmatism is never far away where Capello is concerned and the threat of suspension for Scott Parker in what may be a rearguard action in Montenegro, where a draw will be enough, meant the Italian had a use for Lampard against Wales. While once Parker was forced to leave Stamford Bridge when Lampard stood in his way, now his fellow Londoner is his international stand-in when he is not risked. It is quite a reverse, and the famously proud Lampard may well be feeling the cold breath of uncertainty. As one replaced the other on 73 minutes, the departee looked as unconvinced by his own performance as much of Wembley Stadium, his 'high fives' with colleagues possessing an air of insecure over-eagerness.
A snatched shot, blazed over in the 62nd minute in the type of position from which he once rattled many a net, had presented a moment of thwarted vindication. His play all evening had been earnest but lacking in fizz. Injury-hit last year, and yet to find his feet amid the experimentations of the new Chelsea, Capello had hardly turned to Lampard as a player in rare form.
"We played not well for first 20 minutes," said Capello in stilted summation of a narrow victory. "And we suffered for the last 15 minutes." And Lampard was hardly offered a boost to any flagging self-worth when Capello chose to answer questions about his performance yet never mention him by name. "All the team play at the same level, some moments with confidence, some without," was the coach's brusque but vague view of him.
Parker is just two years younger but emblematic of a fresh approach that so many desire. Few England fans of proven sanity can expect their country to win the Henri Delaunay trophy in Kiev on July 1 next year, so most want to see a changing of the guard before a new generation can set sail for Rio in 2014. Ashley Young's 35th minute strike, a conversion of a Stewart Downing cross, was a combination of two players in club form, and with plenty left in the tank.
Those most clamoured for are even younger. Jack Wilshere's driving performance against Switzerland when compared to the chugging ineffectiveness of Lampard and Gareth Barry, a partner in treacle-treading, has already raised hopes. Ravaged by the Arsenal stadium mystery that is beginning to look like an injury curse, Wilshere was reduced to HD viewing at home, with smartphone in hand, having survived an afternoon at the dentist according to his timeline. One day he will supplant both Parker and Lampard and others will join him. Just when remains the question, though the answer does not look imminent.
That Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones' fledgling excellence for Manchester United did not even result in a place on a bench suggested that Capello is not minded to create an English legacy by blooding the next generation. This was the Italian's last competitive Wembley international and he opted for what he knew, with the exception of Chris Smalling at right back. Perhaps a pencilled-in friendly with Spain in November, qualification permitting, will see him flush his ranks with youth but he will probably consider that exposing them to the world champions' ability to dissolve opponents through relentless passing can only hamper development.
In that case, we are already running out of time to see a new England before Euro 2012 beckons. And the current crop hardly impressed here, and could have been embarrassed only for sub Robert Earnshaw to save the shame all for himself. A frankly hideous shinner of an open-netted chance in the 76th minute was described by Capello as "lucky" while Wales boss Gary Speed chose to back his errant marksman.
"It's one of those things," said Speed. "He'll get over that, he's a top, top lad, Wales through and through. Yeah, I thought it was in."
In mitigation for Lampard, he was no longer on the field as his team-mates gave up that gaper, but that should not serve as strong evidence for the continued flourishing of his England career. It is a symbol of the inertia of late-period Capello that many would expect Lampard to take his place in Poland and Ukraine. He is not alone in reaching the end of his days, but a strong signal of a new England would be to consign him to the past. At present, the future is being made to wait too long.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Aaron Ramsey Perhaps lifted from the depression of Arsenal's troubles, Ramsey showed that at 20, he was indeed a fine choice to lead his country as he caused trouble for England's muddling middle three of Lampard, Barry and James Milner.
ENGLAND VERDICT: Unconvincing, lacking in enterprise, and reliant on the movement of Wayne Rooney and Young when the rest stayed static and lacked adventure, this was a keynote Capello performance. Momentum was surrendered far too often, and one moment of class was clung to, and not even grimly.
WALES VERDICT: Gary Speed was rightly effusive after this followed a fine defeat of Montenegro. "We have had false dawns before," he modestly deflected but he was entitled to be "really, really proud". Had Earnshaw scored then a draw would have been just deserts.
HOME AND AWAY: It may not matter now that home qualifiers are done with but the standard of Wembley performances during Euro 2012 qualifying has been risible since Bulgaria were despatched a year ago. Compare that to free-flowing wins in Switzerland and Bulgaria and it adds up to a sincere lack of home comfort. "Pressure" was the unconvincing excuse offered by Fabio Capello.