Capello changes his tune on Northern Ireland
Fabio Capello believes he will face his toughest test as Russia boss when his team take on Northern Ireland at Windsor Park in a World Cup qualifier on Friday night.
Capello's comments are a far cry from the disrespect he showed to Michael O'Neill's team before and after the corresponding fixture in Moscow in September.
Then the former England coach explained that he would not be calling a new striker into his squad to cover for injuries as it was “only Northern Ireland” that Russia were playing.
Following a 2-0 victory for the hosts in Capello's first competitive fixture in charge, when questioned about his team's style of play, the Italian said: “To play attractive football you need two good teams. Here one team just wanted to play long balls.”
The 66-year-old has clearly changed tack from six months ago and is on a charm offensive prior to his trip to Belfast tomorrow.
Since that win over Northern Ireland, Russia have enjoyed three more victories out of three without conceding a goal, taking them to the top of the Group F table five points ahead of Israel and Portugal. Northern Ireland are fourth out of the six sides with three points from four games.
Capello's side will be big favourites to keep their winning run going in Belfast, but the Italian is warning his players that O'Neill's team present a real danger to their dream of qualifying for the 2014 finals in Brazil, using Northern Ireland's battling 1-1 draw in Portugal last October as evidence.
“I believe it will be the most important match for us in the campaign,” said Capello.
“I am expecting a very tough clash on Friday — and I feel that the match in Belfast will without doubt be our most serious test.”
“Northern Ireland held Portugal to a 1-1 draw last year and are very dangerous on the counter attack and in dead ball situations.”
In an interview in Russia earlier this month it had appeared that Capello was once again taking Northern Ireland for granted suggesting that a victory was virtually guaranteed, though given what he said yesterday perhaps the remarks were lost in translation. Didn't Fabio have that problem when he was managing England?
With Portugal and Israel also meeting on Friday, it is a chance for Northern Ireland to make up ground on one or both of them or for Russia to move further clear at the top.
“The five point lead doesn't mean anything. We have played just four matches and the serious clashes are still ahead. We have no right to relax until we win our place in the World Cup finals,” added Capello, believed to be on a salary of £7 million per year.
Russia are training in London this week using Arsenal's facilities. They are scheduled to arrive in Belfast tomorrow for a training session at Windsor Park.
Russia also have a match next week, on Monday, but it is a friendly against Brazil at Stamford Bridge, home of Chelsea, of all places.
Don't be surprised if Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is in attendance to see his national team. With interim boss Rafael Benitez leaving the Blues in the summer, Capello's name has been linked with the soon to be vacant position at Chelsea.
If that were to happen, and with Chelsea it's wise not to rule anything out, Capello would be reunited with his former England captain John Terry! We all know how that ended first time around, don't we?
Belfast Telegraph Digital