England went into their final group game needing nothing less then a win, otherwise they were out of the World Cup, yet again failing to live up to their incredibly high expectations. However a revived England line-up assured everyone that there was nothing to worry about as they scraped a 1-0 win over Slovenia who crash out after the USA beat Algeria 1-0 to top the group.
Deadly Defoe made a difference
People were crying out for something different up front. Despite filling his role well in the opening two games, Heskey just needed to be replaced by someone who can score goals. Either a player like Gerrard in a deeper role, or and out-and-out striker. Finally, we were reminded of how good a goalscorer Jermain Defoe really is. Somewhat of a forgotten man in an England shirt, Defoe has been a little bit inconsistant over the past twelve months but nobody can argue with his offering in front of goal, and for me is England’s best finisher. So how come he kept being overlooked? The enigma that is Emile Heskey, it seems. But today he was given his chance, and took it with open arms. Linking up nicely with James Milner, Defoe flicked one past Samir Handanovic in the Slovenian goal and England finally kick-started their World Cup.
He ran the channels well, and was a superb outlet for Rooney and Gerrard. Much more flexible then Heskey, England replaced their long ball game with something more passive and creative.
“There’s no width in the midfield…”
Or so we thought. The inclusion of James Milner again out on the right raised questions, but it proved to be a great move from Capello. After two terrible opening games, the reports that Milner was feeling ill must’ve been true and he has a genuine excuse for his underperformances. Out on the right this time, he stuck to the touchline like glue and stretched play. With an unbalanced midfield as Gerrard came centrally, Milner hugged the touchline for the whole game
and provided a source to get the ball into the box. He delivered about four or five laser accurate crosses, setting up Defoe as I mentioned earlier, and threatening a couple of more times. Justifying his inclusion from the first minute, Milner was a relevation and Capello deserves credit for giving him another opportunity.
The problem against Algeria was Lennon did exactly the opposite of what he’s used to doing, and came inwards too much.
On the other side, Gerrard did what was expected and came centrally as often as he could. Ashley Cole provided good wing play, overlapping Gerrard and providing a good option for attacks. Gerrard showed great dynamism and leadership, making late bursts into the box, linking up with the forwards and helping carry England forward to good effect. No Joe Cole, disappointedly, but in hindsight – despite what John Terry may think – he’s no Lionel Messi and may not have offered the same as Gerrard from the start. Cole coming off the bench, as he did, was a good move.
England tense and sloppy
It was England’s best game of the competition, but the likes of Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney still showed signs of tension and fearfulness in a must game win. A win this afternoon should revive belief and dissolve any tension in the air, but things are far from rosy. A bright start was soon replaced by signs of sloppiness and mistakes, however this win is a mountain off of Capello and the player’s shoulders.
England showed signs of sloppiness as they mis-placed passes and gave the ball away regularly. Gareth Barry, who was in a rush to regain fitness and make the World Cup squad, was poor all round and became a liability, letting Slovenia in for a great scoring opportunity. Lampard was anonymous for much of the game deep in the middle of the park and didn’t have license to go forward and join the front three equation of Defoe, Rooney and Gerrard. However England were much less static then what was displayed against Algeria and the USA. The movement was good, and it was a world away from the disgraceful performance against Algeria.
It was far from rosy for England, there were a couple of heart-in-mouth moments. A 1-0 lead is the worst lead in football, one that can be overturned in a matter of moments. Upson didn’t shower himself in glory in place of Carragher (and King, and Ferdinand) at the back, but John Terry was a rock and put his body in the way of a couple of shots. Lampard and Barry offered little in the way of a shield in front of the back four. Opportunities came in fits and starts for Slovenia, the closest when they had three or four at once but two were denied by the heroics of Terry. Set-piece wise, Slovenia were poor and didn’t show the same accuracy as earlier games.
Slovenia played England at the worst possible time – needing a win, and nothing less. If they had opened their tournament against England they most likely would have drawn, and could’ve made progression a larger possibility.
England await tonight’s games in Group D, as Germany face Ghana and Australia play Serbia. Any of the teams can finish top, but it’s unlikely to be Australia unless a miracle happens. England will be hoping Germany struggle again tonight, a loss for them means England are avoiding the Germans in the last sixteen. The best option would be Ghana, who struggle for goals and England would have more then enough to beat them. Serbia are a good team, and a likely win against the Socceroos means England will face a tough task in the next round.
A word of congratulations to the USA, whose 90th minute winner from Landon Donovon means they progress into the last sixteen and top Group C ahead of England.