LONDON — One of the best moves England manager and master tactician Fabio Capello could make before England plays Slovakia on Saturday is to hand the No. 8 jersey to Steven Gerrard.
It may sound ridiculous to suggest that a professional footballer can play better if he wears his favorite number, but in the case of the Liverpool midfielder it is true.
Gerrard is in the form of his life, prompting Zinedine Zidane to call him the best footballer in the world.
Few players if any are playing better than Gerrard right now, and Liverpool’s No. 8 had been the inspiration in the stunning victories over Real Madrid, Manchester United and Aston Villa in recent weeks.
“I’ve always been a No. 8 for Liverpool and like the jersey,” said Gerrard, which is as big a hint as he could give Capello.
Gerrard has been an enigma for England. When he and Chelsea’s Frank Lampard, the two best English central midfielders around, have played together for their country neither has reproduced club form consistently.
Many theories have been put forward. At their clubs both have a defensive midfielder who allows them to push forward, but with England that is not always the case.
Gerrard says he has played in his best position, a free role somewhere between midfield and behind the main striker, only a handful of times for his country.
The Football Association pays Capello a reported £6 million a year to solve such problems and Saturday’s friendly against Slovakia, before Wednesday’s 2010 World Cup qualifying tie against Ukraine, will be a good indication of how the Italian plans to get the best out of his two best midfielders.
“I am aware that I do need to be consistent for my country and to try and reproduce my Liverpool form,” Gerrard said. “But I think since the new manager has come in my form has improved.”
Another dilemma for Capello concerns his goalkeeper. David James will be within touching distance of his 40th birthday at the World Cup finals next year, and successful teams at the highest level tend not to have 39-year-old goalkeepers.
There is no obvious replacement or successor to the Portsmouth veteran at the moment. The best bet is Ben Foster, but he has been understudy to Edwin van der Sar at Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson has loaned him out to gain experience.
Capello has a policy only to select players who are playing regularly for their clubs, but has made an exception with Foster, which shows how highly he rates the 25-year-old.
Foster won his only England cap while on loan to Watford in February 2007, which was 13 months before his debut for United. He has played a little more regularly since the turn of the year, making two appearances in the F.A. Cup and two in the League Cup, including the final, but, having also been troubled by injuries, he has made only seven appearances in all competitions for United since returning from a loan spell at Watford almost two years ago.
If Foster can oust Van der Sar next season, it would certainly help his England chances. As the regular goalkeeper of the world champions, Foster could expect a similar role with his country.
In the meantime Foster is set to play against Slovakia with James returning for the more important business against Ukraine.
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MY DEEP THROAT tells me the Football Association is livid that the body representing Premier League referees has dared to question the decision by a disciplinary commission.
Last Sunday, Aston Villa goalkeeper Brad Friedel was sent off for denying Liverpool’s Fernando Torres an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. In every aspect of the laws, referee Martin Atkinson was correct in showing the American the red card.
Villa appealed for wrongful dismissal and, surprise surprise, the decision was overturned, maintaining the 100 percent success rate of appeals by Premier League clubs this season (a percentage clubs lower down the football pyramid don’t enjoy).
The disciplinary commissions is in effect independent and does not even have to justify its often baffling decisions to the F.A. (only in England . . . ). So it will be interesting to see how the F.A. justifies overturning a decision by a referee that was absolutely correct in law.
The F.A.’s appeals system goes against both the laws of the game and FIFA’s disciplinary guidelines.
Law Five states: “The decisions of the referee regarding facts connected with play . . . are final.” The F.A.’s response is that it is not overturning the referee’s decision, only the punishment which as the ruling body it says it is entitled to do.
But FIFA’s disciplinary guidelines are that every player sent off must serve at least a one-game suspension.
Not where the F.A. is concerned.
LAST WEEK Alan Oliver, who spent 30 years covering Newcastle United for the local Evening Chronicle, received a lifetime achievement award for the dignified and professional way he had covered the club.
A few days later Newcastle banned Oliver, now semi-retired and working for a Sunday newspaper, from St. James’ Park because they did not like a story he wrote about manager Joe Kinnear’s health (Kinnear recently underwent heart surgery).
Given the way Newcastle has been playing this season, around 50,000 supporters must wish they had been handed the same punishment.
A few months ago, Kinnear launched a foul-mouthed attack on the media and certain journalists at a news conference. Imagine if one of the recipients of Kinnear’s expletive-heavy tirade had said that to the manager.
What happened to Kinnear?
Nothing, but I suppose the club could hardly ban the manager.
A short while later Newcastle banned one scribe for what it said was sarcasm in a match report.
Banning reporters for no good reason is commonplace in English football.
Crystal Palace banned the Croydon Advertiser because the local paper did not like the club’s new strip for next season.
The toast is Freedom Of Speech.
Portsmouth banned its local paper when it printed a story that the F.A. Cup, which it won last year, had been accidentally damaged — which it had. The Cup holders (or droppers) were unhappy the truth came out.
A League One club’s local paper has been banned for years after a misquote appeared about how difficult the chairman’s job is. It was a human error, hardly libel, and an apology was printed . . . but the ban remained in place. The revenge-seeking chairman even went to the extreme of placing untrue stories on the club’s Web site in the hopes the paper would lift them.
A League Two club banned the local paper when it refused to let the club use all its photographs free of charge. The paper still carried reports of games, but instead of photographs an artist drew goal-mouth action. When the club relented, many readers wrote in and said they preferred the drawn images to photos.
Queens Park Rangers banned a reporter who wrote a transfer story that turned out to be spot-on, but the club claimed — this is a belter — that it wasn’t correct when he wrote it.
It is a sad fact that more football writers and newspapers have been banned by clubs for publishing true stories than false ones.
Funny old game.
Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.
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