Fabio Capello is convinced that he is the man who will finally solve the question of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard's incompatibility and mould them at last into an effective central midfield pairing for England.
On the brink of a World Cup finals with a carefully calibrated formation having won nine out of 10 qualifiers, it did feel like we were stepping back in time. To Euro 2004 perhaps, or the last World Cup four years ago. Or even the doomed qualification campaign for Euro 2008. History tells us that playing these two in central midfield together does not work but, like all the others, Capello wants a go.
The consequences of Gareth Barry's fitness test this morning before Capello names his final 23 man squad for the flight to South Africa tomorrow go far beyond Barry's chance to play in his first World Cup. They go right to the heart of whether Capello will attempt to solve the oldest, most enduring mysteries of England's golden generation. If Barry does not make the cut he is resolved to play Gerrard and Lampard in the centre.
Even if Barry makes it, and Capello wants an assurance that he will be fit enough to train by the end of the week, then it seems inevitable that Gerrard and Lampard will line up as the pair in a 4-2-3-1 formation against the United States in the first group C match on 12 June. Capello has tried all the other contenders — Michael Carrick, Tom Huddlestone and Scott Parker — and sees no other alternative.
After the win over Japan in Austria, in which Gerrard played the second half alongside Lampard in central midfield, Capello dismissed the fears that long-term observers of the England team have about those two players' compatibility. He knew something of their past but, with the buoyant mood of a manager who had just forced the Football Association into grovelling to him, he was not too bothered about it.
He offered up the age-old justification for playing the pair of them together: that good players can play in any position. “Frank and Steve are used to going forward always because they have one holding player [alongside them for their clubs],” Capello said. “If they will play together one will have to stay in different moments as a holding player.
“If Steve goes forward then Lampard stays and [in] different moments Steve has to stay. The most important thing I saw in the second half was when these players get the ball they played it really quickly. The passes were really good through the defence.”
That old line about when one stays, the other goes. If only it was that simple. In the past these two titans of English football have either both assumed the license to roam free or, as it was occasionally under Steve McClaren, were both so inhibited by the infamy of their partnership that neither felt confident enough to break up field.
“I know, I know, I know the history,” Capello said on last week when he was reminded of the problems this partnership has created in the past. “This is always a big question for you [English press]? They can't play together? I hope that they can play together. I have to decide.”