Derided by their coach and booed by their fans, England's players face a humiliating World Cup exit if they fail to beat Slovenia on Wednesday.
After drawing 0-0 against Algeria on Friday, England coach Fabio Capello admitted that he could not even recognize his own team, the one he has crafted for two years. Supporters jeered the players as they walked off the field, and a sullen Wayne Rooney lashed out at the abuse from the 25,000 English fans in the crowd. England's players know they are facing elimination, and they should be playing far better.
"Obviously it's disappointing," England striker Peter Crouch said. "We want to give the fans something to go home and cheer about. They made an effort to come here and it's a shame we didn't have anything to show for them."
Failure to advance to the second round would be among the biggest footballing debacles in England's history, especially after the impressive qualifying campaign that raised hopes of a first major title since winning the World Cup on home soil in 1966.
But as it has so many other times, England's play failed to match the heady talk and huge expectations at home. The team looked sluggish and uninspired in an opening 1-1 draw against the United States, with goalkeeper Robert Green's blunder costing the team two points. Its performance against Algeria was even worse. "It was one of those games when things didn't seem to click," Crouch said.
Midfielder Gareth Barry said England was "flat." "There were not really too many clear-cut chances," Barry said. "For England, that's the least we expect."
England missed numerous simple passes and gave the ball away far too easily against a team making its first World Cup appearance in 24 years. Many of the old problems that frustrated the team under former coaches Steve McClaren and Sven-Goran Eriksson resurfaced. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard struggled to work in tandem, raising doubts that Capello can devise an elusive formula to incorporate both attacking midfielders.
Gerrard was hardly convincing on the left, where England has lacked a natural since Chris Waddle in the early 1990s. And Emile Heskey's work rate hardly compensated for his poor touch, which left Rooney starving for quality service and linkup play.
Capello summed up the performance succinctly: "We played a no good game. In these two games we played, that was not the same team I know."
"This game I didn't see the spirit of the team," added the Italian. England's press was far less reserved, labeling the team as "useless," "clowns" and a "shambles." Rooney was the focus of much of the criticism after his post-game tirade at English fans who booed the team's performance.
The criticism all points to the need for a dramatic turnaround against Slovenia, the smallest nation at the 32-team World Cup but one that has played above all expectations. It leads the group with four points, and can reach the second round for the first time in its history with a draw.
England and the United States have two points each, but the Americans hold an advantage with two more goals scored. Algeria is just behind with one point.
"Hopefully we can get better," Crouch said. "If we win next week we are through. It's simple enough. It's a massive, massive game."