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Time to hit the booze as fans give England the boos

Not looking so easy now, is it?

I’m telling you, this World Cup thing is enough to drive a sober man to drink. Just when you thought they couldn’t lower expectations any further, England produced a performance last night which was inhibited, insipid and inept. Rather than roaring throatily, the Three Lions rolled over and meowed like a kitten, playing out a goalless draw with Algeria that puts a supposedly automatic qualification from one of the tournament’s easiest groups in some considerable jeopardy.

I spent the game with my eyes on the TV and my fingers dancing over my iPad keyboard, tapping out regular updates on Twitter. So rather than do a standard match report, I thought I’d base my analysis on my in-game tweets. Here goes …

A poor first half

As Arsene Wenger would say, England are playing with the handbrake on.

Where other teams have launched into the second round of group games in the manner of a starving man at a buffet table, England were clearly tense from the outset. Routine passes were misplaced, and any Algerian ball aimed anywhere near the vicinity of David James‘ goal seemed to send defenders scattering in panic as if it was a hand grenade. For long spells in the opening 15-20 minutes, England could barely string three passes together, whereas their opponents looked neat and tidy in possession, if somewhat toothless up front.

It spoke volumes that England’s best player early on was Gareth Barry, who popped up so often to make crucial interventions in his own penalty area that he could easily have been mistaken for a member of the back four. Creatively, England were non-existent. Both Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey were plagued by a poor first touch. Captain Steven Gerrard drifted too often away from his left-sided position, preventing Ashley Cole from galloping forward in support. Aaron Lennon was a virtual spectator on the other flank.

England reduced to taking pot shots from distance. No imagination. No pace. No hope of getting anywhere near the final on this showing.

Frank Lampard at least managed to fire off one shot inside the box, but that was pretty much it creatively. All too soon they were reduced to taking speculative shots from outside the area, none of which remotely troubled Algerian keeper M’Bohli. While other teams have stroked the ball joyously around the pitch at pace, England continued to look ponderous, pedestrian and all too predictable. They simply do not look like a team capable of breaking a well-organised defence down.

Someone remind [Glen] Johnson he’s a defender. The clue’s in the name: right BACK.

We know that Glen Johnson is better coming forwards than he is defensively. I accept that. But on a night when he was a no-show in attack, too often he was caught 30 yards too far upfield by simple balls over the top, or turned with ease by an opponent seeking to create room for a cross. It is not just that he is a better attacker than he is a defender – he is a liability defensively. Sooner or later, England will pay the price for it. The worst thing is that we have no real viable alternative.

0-0 HT. This is not the performance we wanted. It is, however, the performance we expected.

Second half not much better

Despite the above critique, I wasn’t actually too worried at half-time. England under Fabio Capello – who will have enjoyed better birthdays than this, his 64th – have often been sluggish out of the blocks and vastly improved in the second half. Sadly, this was not to be one of those occasions. If anything, England were even worse after the break. When the ITV commentators start hyperventilating at the fact England have won a corner, you know things aren’t going well.

Carragher booked. Misses the Slovenia game. Enter Upson. OMG

Jamie Carragher‘s second yellow card of the tournament means he will miss the Slovenia game next Wednesday. With Rio Ferdinand injured before the World Cup had even started and Ledley King lasting only a half, we will have to field either Matthew Upson or the uncapped Michael Dawson as John Terry‘s central defensive partner. It doesn’t inspire confidence.

All too static and predictable. Not exactly difficult to defend against. Defoe on for Heskey.

England’s lack of movement in the final third was depressing to watch. Algeria – who had never kept a clean sheet in seven previous World Cup matches – had little trouble in organising their defence to restrict the space for England attackers to run into. And when the ball was inevitably fed into a tight space, our players lacked the close control and composure to stop moves from breaking down.

Jermain Defoe‘s arrival did briefly ignite England, with his pace and directness immediately stretching and unsettling the Algerian defence, but it was too little too late, really.

Once again I say: hats off to the England fans, who are still singing. Amazing achievement that so many are still awake.

Throughout the game, as England’s pace and confidence periodically ebbed, you could clearly hear thousands of England fans making themselves heard over the ubiquitous vuvuzelas. As the team walked off the pitch after the game, the cheers turned to boos and Rooney was heard to criticise the fans for doing so. Frankly, I’m amazed their tolerance lasted as long as it did. They gave the team their total support during the game. Having travelled thousands of miles and paid considerable sums of money to follow their country, I think they were fully entitled to voice their disappointment.

Food for thought: the 11 England players currently on the pitch earn close to £1m pw between them. Just thought I’d point that out.

I don’t think I need to elaborate on that point any further.

FT 0-0. I’m going to wake up from this nightmare eventually. Inhibited. Insipid. Incompetent. Don’t bother coming home, lads.

Or this one, for that matter. Over the course of 90 minutes England had mustered, according to the FIFA website, six shots on target, but only Lampard’s first-half effort required anything other than the most routine of saves. It was, in truth, as much as England’s disjointed efforts had merited.

Now what?

Even now, nearly three hours after the final whistle, I remain bitterly disappointed. It’s not that I have unrealistic expectations – I view England as a side which should be good enough to reach the quarter-finals, as befits their FIFA ranking (eight), but not much more than that – but I do expect a side assembled from the self-proclaimed “best league in the world” to be able to do slightly better than this.

England’s man of the match? Pick one from Joe Cole, Milner, Upson, Carrick, King, Dawson …

Sadly, the only players whose reputations were enhanced tonight were the ones who never made it off the bench. As for the 11 who started it, I have no qualms about the performances of David James, Ashley Cole and Gareth Barry, but that’s about it. Rooney and Heskey were poor. Gerrard tried hard – sometimes too hard – but to little effect. I fear for Carragher and Terry against pacy, top-quality strikers. Johnson, as I have said, is a liability who does not contribute anywhere near enough in attack to compensate for his defensive deficiencies. Lennon’s contribution was fitful; Lampard’s too.

It’s not great.

Yes, we drew our first two games in 1990 too, but that team was arguably far better than this one. It could hardly be worse.

Of course, all is not without hope. A win over Slovenia – decent in attack, wobbly in defence – will guarantee qualification and may well see us top the group. (Indeed, should the USA draw with Algeria, even a high-scoring draw may be enough.)

And it would not be the first time a team had performed abysmally in the group phase but done well having qualified by the skin of their teeth. Italy won the tournament having had a similarly poor start in 1982. England had one point from two games in 1986, only to catch fire and succumb only to Diego Maradona‘s ‘Hand of God’ in the quarter-final. And in 1990 – as here – we drew our first game 1-1 (against the Republic of Ireland) and our second 0-0 (against Holland), but progressed to within a penalty shootout of the final itself. (Although, as I noted in my tweet, the 1990 side was in my opinion possessed of greater talent than the current team, boasting the likes of Lineker, Beardseley, Gascoigne, Barnes, Waddle and Platt.)

So, yet again, on Wednesday afternoon I will assume my accustomed position on the edge of my seat, tapping out tweets with the fingers of one hand and chewing the nails on the fingers of the other, hoping beyond hope that England will – as they so often do – find a way to scrape through by the skin of their teeth. But I will be fully prepared for the crushing disappointment that will come with defeat. I can do no more.

Finally, in the time-honoured tradition, here are my ratings out of 10:

James 6

Johnson 3, Terry 5, Carragher 5, A Cole 6

Lennon 4, Lampard 5, Barry 6, Gerrard 5

Rooney 4, Heskey 4

Subs: Wright-Phillips 4, Defoe 6, Crouch 4

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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