June 12, 2010 1 Comment
Such was the manner in which England conceded the equalising goal in tonight’s 1-1 draw with the USA that if this had been a boxing match, it would probably have been a narrow points victory, but one where England had somehow managed to land an upper cut to its own chin in the fifth round.
It was just 16 months ago when some ITV viewers watching an FA Cup replay between Everton and Liverpool missed the only goal of the game when the channel accidentally cut to a commercial. Tonight, viewers watching on ITV1′s HD service experienced the same problem, as a Hyundai car commercial suddenly replaced live coverage from Rustenburg just as Steven Gerrard scored the opening goal of England’s opening World Cup match. Sadly, it wasn’t the only goal-related cock-up of the night, as Robert Green‘s handling howler gifted the Americans the softest of equalisers just before half-time.
England have the oldest squad of any of the 32 nations at this World Cup, and it was two of their most experienced campaigners who gave them the best possible start in the fourth minute. Those not watching on HD would have seen captain Gerrard take a clever pass from Emile Heskey – England’s best player on the night – and lash it past Tim Howard. But England failed to capitalise on their early advantage, allowing a workmanlike US team to claw their way back into the match. They had already survived a couple of worrying moments when, in the 40th minute, Clint Dempsey sent a speculative, under-hit effort straight at Green, who somehow contrived to bundle the ball backwards – maybe he was distracted by an unexpected car advert? – and was unable to retrieve it before it had rolled, with agonising slowness, into the empty net.
England huffed and puffed throughout the second half, but other than a Frank Lampard shot which stung Howard’s hands and a Wayne Rooney effort which went narrowly wide, in truth they did little to threaten the American keeper’s goal. Indeed, had Green not partially redeemed himself midway through the second half, making a sharp reaction save to turn Jozy Altidore‘s shot onto his near post, England could easily have lost.
The goalkeeping position has been probably the biggest problem facing Capello in the build-up to the tournament, with most observers feeling that Green deserved first call, having had a more solid and injury-free season than David James and more experience than Joe Hart. However, his fumbling nightmare was not wholly unexpected; no Premier League keeper conceded more goals than Green (four) as a direct result of his own errors last season. For me, that tendency to have one too many aberrations has always been a black mark against any claim to be a goalkeeper of genuine class.
The big question for Capello is: what now? Does he keep faith with Green and give him his shot at redemption, or does he replace him for next Friday’s game, most likely with Hart?
England’s Italian coach faces other dilemmas. Gareth Barry will return to the midfield, probably at the expense of James Milner, who was taken off after half an hour having committed as many fouls (two) as he had had touches of the ball. Ledley King departed at half-time with a torn abductor muscle which will rule him out of the next game; his replacement Jamie Carragher‘s lack of pace was embarrassingly exposed by Altidore. Those two early changes restricted Capello’s tactical options later in the game, which certainly didn’t help his team’s cause as they ran short of ideas against a well-organised American defence.
With hindsight, the result itself is not a major problem for either team, although it does feel more like two points dropped by England and a point gained by the US. Neither Algeria nor Slovenia are particularly great teams, so both England and USA will remain confident of qualifying. And individual results and performances in the group phase mean little when it comes to the knockout rounds. After all, England drew their first game of the 1966 World Cup, a poor 0-0 effort against Uruguay. And Italy drew 1-1 with the USA in the group phase in 2006. Both did rather well subsequent to that. A misstep at this early stage is no more than that: a misstep.
The optimist in me says it is better to get the bad karma out of the way first and that there is plenty of time to get things right. The pessimist tells me England’s goalkeeping and defence are a mess of injuries and disasters waiting to happen. But this is a familiar refrain for fans of the national team. We have been here many, many times before. It is no surprise that we are here again. After Green’s error, the national mood will have been one of disbelief, then anger and finally resignation – oh God, not again – acceptance and quiet hope. It’s a bit like going through all seven stages of grief in the space of 90 minutes. Or, to put it another way, it’s the lot of the football fan the world over, whether you are English, German or North Korean.
After the game, Capello remained calm and upbeat:
Yes, we created a lot of chances to score goals. We pressed a lot, played a good game. They shot once and scored a goal. We are in a good moment as a team and the next game will be better. Only the result is not good.
And that is pretty much spot on. Over-reaction after a disappointing result like this is a common fault of media and fans alike. England, the eighth best team in the world according to FIFA, drew with the USA, ranked 14 – that hardly qualifies a shock result. To make wholesale changes now would disrupt carefully laid plans, confuse the players and undermine confidence. What’s more important is that Capello makes whatever tweaks are necessary to elicit a reaction from his team over the next two games. Fundamentally, England’s position remains sound. They avoided a damaging defeat tonight, and if they cannot achieve positive results against relative minnows like Algeria and Slovenia, in what is still one of the weakest groups overall in the competition, they do not deserve to go through anyway.
Barring further injuries, expect three changes for the Algeria game on Friday: a fit-again Barry for Milner (with Gerrard moving out to the left flank), Carragher replacing King if the latter is unfit, and Hart for Green. Any more would be change for the sake of change.
England can definitely do better than they did tonight. They will need to if they are to get anywhere near the final on July 11th. But right now that is no cause for panic – yet.