England's mission accomplished ... but Germany are next
This was much, much better. Showing a spirit almost entirely absent from their performance against Algeria five days earlier, England battled successfully to preserve a lead established by Jermain Defoe midway through the opening half of their final group match against Slovenia.sports Updated: Jun 24, 2010 20:05 IST
This was much, much better. Showing a spirit almost entirely absent from their performance against Algeria five days earlier, England battled successfully to preserve a lead established by Jermain Defoe midway through the opening half of their final group match against Slovenia.
With the aid of east European finishing as profligate as their own, they secured a 1-0 win that takes them through to the last 16 of the competition while avoiding the ignominy of elimination before the knockout stage of a World Cup for the first time since 1958.
Meanwhile, in the other Group C fixture, taking place simultaneously in Pretoria, an injury-time goal by Landon Donovan, the only goal of the match between the USA and Algeria, put the Americans on top of the final group standings, ahead of England. As a result Fabio Capello's side will play Germany, the Group D winners after last night's victory over Ghana, in Bloemfontein on Sunday afternoon, for a place in the quarter-finals.
It will seem odd for these two old adversaries to be meeting in the round of 16; their last encounter at a World Cup was in a Turin semi-final in 1990, when Gazza's tears, according to legend, inspired football's new popularity among the middle classes and Germany won the shoot-out.
England had to cling on to claim their reward yesterday. After Slovenia came close on several occasions to snatching the point that would have ensured their own qualification and eliminated England, time-wasting became the order of the day.
And at that point the one thing that nobody could question was the depth of the manager's concern over the outcome. Whether Capello was bothered about England's fortunes or his own reputation after what to most other men would have been a bruising few days, he visibly put in every bit as much of a shift as his players.
Two minutes from the end of normal time he gesticulated furiously as Joe Cole, a 72nd-minute substitute for Wayne Rooney, attempted a couple of overambitious passes instead of retaining possession. A couple of minutes later Frank Lampard, with a better understanding of the imperatives, dribbled slowly up the touchline past the technical area, closely attended by three Slovenia defenders and with no team-mates nearby, to find Capello practically keeping pace with him. Seldom has running down the clock been made to feel so urgent.
For much of the game the two sides provided a spectacle as coarse and cut-up as the pitch in the Port Elizabeth stadium. This was not a spectacle to make Brazil or Argentina experience a great deal of disquiet, or to persuade Franz Beckenbauer to retract his recent unflattering remarks.
It was, in fact, frequently reminiscent of the hectic cut and thrust of an English league game. But having put themselves in such a parlous position thanks to the two unsatisfactory draws, England achieved the minimum requirement of survival and are now only one victory away from matching their performances under Sven-Goran Eriksson in 2002 and 2006.
Whether they can dare to dream of more will be the subject of heated debate in the coming days. Yesterday's margin of victory should have been more emphatic but their known limitations, exposed by Algeria to a greater degree than Slovenia could manage, have yet to be exploited by a top side.
But after several days of disquiet, when an apparent dissatisfaction with the manager's approach among senior players led John Terry to make his ill-fated intervention, they certainly played like a team. They worked hard for each other and their general coherence seemed to benefit from changes that introduced the eager Defoe alongside Rooney and, with the replacement of the suspended Jamie Carragher by Matthew Upson, gave the side a third naturally left-footed player to go with Ashley Cole and Gareth Barry.
James Milner, substituted against the USA and unused against Algeria, was deployed on the right wing for this match. After a few tentative early forays, in the 22nd minute the Aston Villa man suddenly produced a wicked cross that Defoe was able to meet with his right shin, giving England the lead that Terry and his fellow defenders then had to protect.
Of Terry's reservations about Capello's approach, and a possible reaction to being slapped down for daring to make his criticisms public, there was no visible sign. His personal contribution was again outstanding, not least when England were facing a few minutes of Slovenian siege towards the end of the match, and the would-be insurrectionist was not alone in his obduracy.
Upson, his partner in central defence, made an equally vital intervention in the last minute of normal time by sliding in to take the ball off the toe of Tim Matavz just as the Slovenia substitute was about to force the ball home from close range.
No Englishman, however, set a better example than Steven Gerrard. Terry's latest successor as captain prompted and cajoled from his position on the left of midfield, keeping the shape that Capello had reformulated and constantly bringing others into play. As a result England seemed neither to crowd themselves nor to leave each other unsupported.
Their second match at sea level, starting in sunlight by the shore of the Indian Ocean, certainly seemed to suit them better than the earlier fixture in Cape Town, where they struggled to match the Algerians' enthusiasm in a goalless draw. There was more of the impetus that they had shown, however inefficiently, throughout the match against the USA, on the high veld at Rustenburg.
Amid the general sense of relief, the main English concern was for Rooney's continued poor form. The talismanic forward looked very little happier than he had against Algeria.
Although never stinting in his effort, he missed a fine opportunity to increase the lead just before the hour when he ran on to Lampard's through pass with only the goalkeeper to beat but saw his shot diverted on to the post by Samir Handanovic's glove.
A fit and happy Rooney would have buried that chance without a second thought, and his failure raised further questions about his real state of health and mind. Last week Capello claimed that he was in "perfect" shape, before informing the world on the eve of yesterday's match that he had "improved" in training, and last night the manager explained that the substitution had been made because of an ankle injury. England will be justifiably pleased with yesterday's success, but on Rooney's true condition their hopes of further progress may depend.