Saturday, 19 June 2010

World Cup, Day 8

Tonight tested faith and dimmed passion. The substance of manager, player and stadium-fan disgusted crowds in pubs, homes and hospitals up and down a depressed England. Unprofessional or acute, Rooney's comments after the final whistle, camera in face, epitomised our collective failure.

Once again the back four were efficient. Complaints here are vain if plausible, though with the excellent Carragher suspended, Capello's reluctance to cap Dawson might prove his umpteenth error in recent weeks. James looked fine while the reintroduction of Gareth Barry nullified Algeria's commendable efforts in possession. But neither Barry nor any player on the field passed with correct weight or invention.

Frank Lampard's presence in midfield is startlingly reductive. I'm still waiting for somebody to justify his England career without referencing an infinitely resourced, well-balanced and ruthless Chelsea FC who play week-in, week-out and thrive on deploying a one-paced, consistent goalscorer. Several meaningful statistics glare at Capello. Not for six years has Lampard scored a significant goal (2 against a broken Croatia doesn't count), and he shares responsibility for qualification failure in 2008. At the last World Cup, Lampard had the most shots yet failed to score once, even in 120 minutes against the worst team in the round of 16, Ecuador, then again in 120 minutes against Portugal. Of his twenty England goals, five have been penalties; the most important (QF shoot-out) and the most recent (Japan) he both missed.

In the face of Sky's ubiquitous montage imagery - Lampard-8-blue, Gerrard-8-red - fans must realise that the consistency of their threats has been made possible by steely ball-winners (Makelele, Essien, Hamann, Mascherano) and enhanced by creative, tempo-effectors (Xabi Alonso, Deco, erm, Joe Cole). Moreso than Lampard, if Steven Gerrard wearing the armband is served in this way, he can decide games by striking the ball crisply, just once, in 90 minutes. So is our only playmaker still injured, utterly untrusted or a divisive figure in the camp? What can it be, really? This is incredulous.

Perhaps Capello, having always played with 4-4-2 in club football, feels he can not incorporate Joe Cole into a system that did the job in qualifying. There is now a good enough goalkeeper, a good enough defence (just watch any of the tournament favourites), a holding player, a talismanic midfielder (the captain), a talismanic striker (if Rooney can forget about coming deep) and potent width (in Lennon, Johnson, Ashley Cole). Where Capello has been publically admired for his confidence and discipline, I wonder whether it is fear and strategic error, not braving (not using common sense) the selection or substitution of Joe Cole. Totally ambivalent is Cole's fitness; no doubt he is fresh for having featured so rarely this season, but equally his lack of match-sharpness could lessen his impact. Well, no performance will be as blunt as what we witnessed tonight.

For most of the people in the pub where I watched this England World Cup fixture, the occasion seemed to be a vehicle for drink and sex, rather than a seminal match whose every minute demanded their attention. Flirting talk, weighty make-up, hair-wax and over masculine
handshakes were as fastidiously applied as you see at any promiscuity-advancing, kaleidoscopic night club. I lost my patience when a thirty-year-old near me blew his pink vuvuzela as if fun was happening - this man cloaked by the cross of St George, on which was written not the names of his family or of the football club or community he supports, but The Sun. He never booed animalistically, but he targeted players: "Heskey, you're shit" (it's not his fault he has been on the pitch for so long), "Rooney, you're shit" (fatigued, and should be playing on the last shoulder), and "Where is Joe Cole?" (rhetorical question). I restrained my inner moral violence, tolerated the anti-culture, and fixed hope on the spark of a single player: Aaron Lennon. However Lennon's two dissecting crosses were once again inconsequential. Answer your critics, but do not expect praise for judicious wide-play unless a centre forward is in the right place and able.

Had the manager tried another spark, the imaginative flame in England's squad (of course, Joe Cole), then I believe - though it is only belief - that England could have lit up, not only a listless evening, but a tournament where contenders disappoint daily.

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