Sunday, 13 June 2010

World Cup, Day 2

Fabio Capello's shrewd, tactical nous certified the ease of England's qualifying campaign. The presence of a disciplined, protective midfield player had ensured the freedom for Gerrard, Lampard et al to fulfill their potential as direct, talismanic enterprises. Meanwhile Wayne Rooney began to score consistently for England because now he could restrict his artistry to the final third of the pitch, knowing that ball retention and domination were no headache. England's historical dearth of lateral movement and tempo in the midfield was redressed by an efficient, left-footed Gareth Barry and the bright-light outlets; a dramatically improved Aaron Lennon, Rooney, and now it seemed, a fit-again Joe Cole.

The sensible response to Barry's injury is like-for-like. So I first began to worry when neither Scott Parker nor Tom Huddlestone - on-form, holding assets - were included in the final twenty three. I remained hopeful that Michael Carrick would rediscover himself and I was certain he would play, or at least feature, necessarily against USA. Tonight was no disaster, but it was a snubbing of the successful system we have become delightedly familiar with during Capello's tenure.

Heskey justified his selection immediately, assisting a determined captain's goal and winning several headers to put the Americans under early pressure. Inevitably his impact would wane, and perhaps it should have been Rooney leading the line, getting on the end of Lennon's pass of the match for instance. But this is mere conjecture, and Capello will be happy with Heskey's key contribution. And then why, so late in the game, Peter Crouch? Confronting a physically exceptional American unit, when instead Joe Cole's invention and subtlety could have won the game for England, the Crouch substitution was insipid. Throw on a fresh playmaker, and Rooney might have been fed further forward where he has recently scored 34 goals in 44 appearances for United.

But a world-beater dropping deep and no consistent pattern of passing were never going to stop us from defeating even as stern an opponent as USA (the only team to have defeated Spain in over 50 matches). The difference between three points and one, possibly first and second place in Group C, was a teamsheet spearheaded by the name, Green, and all its connotative mediocrity. Not a freak mistake, but the consequences of opting for that flake in West Ham's feathery defence; error-prone and who, contrary to the patriotic mumblings of some pundits, has only ever stood out for club or country for the wrong reasons. Despite Green's overexposure to international football in a scare-free qualifying campaign, I didn't expect Capello to adopt the sewage paradox - that there is such a thing as a "compromise goalkeeper".

James's fitness concerns and Hart's inexperience are simply irrelevant: you pick your best and most confident stopper. And I wonder whether any other manager in the history of the World Cup has picked his least talented, least confident goalkeeper, while two commanding superiors are ready and waiting in reserve. Applying the logic of caps, Paul Robinson - who actually
has major tournament experience - must be questioning why he is sat in Blackburn, listening to vuvuzelas and A-Level English Lit hopeful, Clive Tyldesley. Terrifying logic. Irritating musical instrument. God-awful commentator.

Tyldesley, the voice of ITV Football, proclaimed after an ordinary shot seeped through Green's fingers and onto the inside of the post, that the goalkeeper had redeemed himself with a fantastic save. In all its clownishness, everything came back, and I was 18 again, it was Germany, and I saw a face I loathed winking, graceless in victory, and a youth that was mine evaporating in a miserable pub. Surely not another tournament defined by specific failure and vacuous incite? Oh the dejavu of fans and pundits repeating endlessly to themselves the word
dejavu, perpetuating such nonsense as to whether dropping Robert Green would shatter his confidence. Call me cold, but I'm more interested in a Goals Against column than in a no.12's paltry career and its bleak future.

Although livid at Green's selection, at Heskey's finishing and at the snail-pairing of Carragher and Terry, as England supporters have every right to be, Capello's team looks no more flawed than outside-chance-rivals, France (Domenech-depraved) or Argentina (Maradona-misguided). What I have enjoyed most since Tshabalala's belter is France's inability to score against Uruguay and Championship winger, Jonas Gutierrez, playing as Argentina's right back, rather than this season's Champions League winning captain, Javier Zanetti, not even in the squad. A well-organised, Rooney-topped XI is going to give contendors a run for their money, if we give ourselves the chance. Every outfield player did what was asked of them this evening, they just didn't get the two, safe helping hands they needed.

As a rejuvenated Steven Gerrard said in his post-match interview, the most important thing is to come away from the opening game unbeaten. Tonight's howler is a blessing-in-disguise, and common sense demands a reaction. A capable goalkeeper and a disciplined holding midfield player must be assimilated before it is too late. Dynamic, samba-educated opponents will waltz in and out of our core and head for a pace-bereft central defence, unless we adapt. Still, it is encouraging that after five matches, three significant footballers have begun casting their footprints amid the giddiness - Lionel Messi, Park Ji-Sung and the captain of England. For now, romance and realism remain allied.

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