Wednesday, 9 September 2009

England – One hand on the cup already?

Although the headlines will be predictably jingoistic, horrendously over-optimistic and foolishly lauding Fabio Capello’s England side as the greatest since 1996, as well as being favourites to win the World Cup in South Africa next summer, this shouldn’t detract from what was a very impressive performance. Although the so-called ‘Wally with a Brolly’ was comprehensively outwitted by Slaven Bilic and his England side outdone by their Croatian counterparts, under Capello the tables have well and truly turned. A 5-1 victory, even despite home advantage, against a team that is #9 in the FIFA World Rankings, just 26 points behind England at #7, is most certainly an impressive result. Although the spectre of England flags flying from car windows looms large for the next eleven months or so, along with fans and ‘pundits’ alike praising Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard as ‘one of the greatest midfield partnerships England has ever had’, there are many reasons to be positive. Although admittedly following the abject failure to qualify for the 2008 European Championships any vague improvement would have been cause for tremendous optimism, it seems England are steadily improving. Despite the team’s weak showing against Slovakia on Saturday, the players seem to have developed the ability to up their game when it matters most, and the way in which England attacked the admittedly weakened Croatia side from the first minute is indicative of this.

Aaron Lennon’s inclusion on the right-hand side of midfield in preference to Shaun Wright-Phillips was immediately effective when he was scythed down by Josip Simunic in the area after just seven minutes and the referee pointed to the spot. Lampard emphatically dispatched the penalty into the bottom left-hand corner, and just ten minutes later Lennon’s cross was met by a header from Steven Gerrard, deployed on the left in a free-role of sorts. The selection of Darijo Srna at left-back was a dreadful mistake from Bilic, yet as Kevin McCarra states "it was no fault of the Tottenham Hotspur winger" that a sub-standard Croatian defence was unable to provide him with a proper test. Whilst Glen Johnson’s defensive qualities are regularly called into question, there can no doubts about his attacking potential, and in the 59th minute he sent in a pin-point cross which was met by Lampard for his fifth international goal in just six games. Gerrard added to England's tally with his second header of the night in the sixty-eighth minute from a Rooney cross. Arsenal striker Eduardo took advantage of a period of relative Croatian pressure plus Johnson’s failure to prevent Rakitic’s cross to slot home following a double-save from Robert Green. However England’s four-goal cushion was restored after a disastrous error from the Croatian ‘keeper Runje provided Wayne Rooney with possibly the simplest goal he will ever score. It was a shame for Runje as his mistake blighted what was otherwise a hugely impressive performance. Were it not his numerous interventions, as well Emile Heskey’s lacklustre finishing, the final score would have been dramatically different.

Despite the score line there are a number of areas within the team that need to be addressed, especially in advance of the friendly with Brazil on November 14th, where the defensive side of Glen Johnson’s game will be given a significantly more extensive work-out. Although the impressive result and emphatic nature of England’s performance will likely mask many of the weaknesses in the side, Emile Heskey’s form will be of great interest to Capello. As Kevin McCarra of the Guardian observes “there are those who are finding it ever more insufferable that Heskey should be the striker”, and the combination of Jermaine Defoe’s lethal Premier League record of late and Heskey’s failure to convert any of the handful of chances afforded to him will have only exacerbated the problem. Indeed if England must play with a ‘target-man’ alongside Wayne Rooney there are many who believe it should be Peter Crouch, as he undoubtedly offers far more in terms of goal-scoring. Indeed Heskey has only managed a return of seven goals in fifty-six England appearances, whilst John Terry, from centre-back, has contributed six goals in fifty-four games. It is also debatable as to whether a side such as Spain, Brazil, France or Germany, whom England would need to overcome in order to progress to the latter stages of the World Cup, would afford Steven Gerrard the type of freedom he received courtesy of the Croatians. Gareth Barry’s relative international inexperience is also an issue, as he had hardly been tested by any of the teams in England’s World Cup Qualification Group prior to the Croatia game, and still hasn't been. However it appears the recurring issue of the England goalkeeper’s position may be no more, with Robert Green affording the back four a sense of stability that was undoubtedly lacking with both Scott Carson and Paul Robinson.

The headlines tomorrow will be full of praise for England’s performance and rightly so, yet there will be many more tests to come for Fabio Capello and his players. However the ease with which the team has qualified for South Africa means that the last few group games can be used to ‘iron out’ the faults and alleviate the fierce competition for places within the squad. In the words of Peter Fraser of Sky Sports, England “under Capello, know exactly where they are going” and have come a long way from the abject failure of Steve McLaren's tenure to score nine goals in two games “against a Croatia team they were not expected to finish above when the draw was made”.

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