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England squeak through, but Slovenia are denied by late USA winner

In the end, everything worked out okay. Just. Deep down, most of us always knew it would, but feared it wouldn’t. England have qualified for the knockout stages of the 2010 World Cup after a tense 1-0 win over Slovenia.

When England beat today’s opponents 2-1 in a friendly last September, few would have suspected that this would be a dress rehearsal for today’s far more serious match in Port Elizabeth, with qualification for the last 16 – and potentially the international futures of coach Fabio Capello and a number of his senior players – at stake. Funny how these things work out, isn’t it?

Capello, confident in his system and typically stubborn, retained his trusted 4-4-2 formation, ignoring the clamour of journalistic and armchair ‘experts’ who were demanding captain Steven Gerrard be allowed to play behind Wayne Rooney at the head of a five-man midfield. Bringing in the pace and finishing ability of Jermain Defoe for the aerial strength and physical presence of Emile Heskey was an obvious tactical switch. And Matthew Upson getting the nod over uncapped Michael Dawson to replace the suspended Jamie Carragher was the only realistic choice. But it was the announcement of James Milner – and not Joe Cole – to take Aaron Lennon‘s place on the right side of midfield which set eyebrows raising.

In truth Cole, who had not played a single minute in the previous two games, was never going to start. Even if Capello had been considering him, John Terry‘s clumsy, self-aggrandising pronouncement effectively telling the Italian to start his Chelsea teammate against the Slovenians was only ever going to elicit the opposite response. Like it or not – and it is as transparent as glass that Terry does not like it – there is one man in charge of the England football team, and it isn’t him.

After what is now an habitual slow start, in which Terry, Upson and Glen Johnson were all guilty of poor distribution in the defensive third, England gradually settled down against a relatively unadventurous Slovenian side. Indeed, other than one smart punch from a free kick and a couple of catches which even Robert Green would have found routine, David James was a virtual spectator throughout the first half.

But for all England’s visibly improved workrate and attacking threat, they clearly needed a goal to inject much-needed confidence. And that finally arrived on 22 minutes, when Milner delivered a perfect cross from wide on the right and Defoe, predator that he is, nipped just in front of his defender and volleyed it venomously past Slovenia keeper Samir Handanovic, who had no chance even though the ball was hit almost straight at him. Milner and Defoe, Capello’s two tactical changes: no longer an iffy decision, now a masterstroke.

Like a double shot of espresso entering the bloodstream, the goal lifted England. The body language of the team shifted visibly; more assertive, more confident, with red shirts half a yard faster to every ball than before. They started to dominate possession as Slovenia faltered, unsure whether to go on the attack immediately or get to half-time and then regroup. Again and again England carved out openings – a half-chance here, a promising cross there.

The second half began with England even further on the front foot. Defoe shot just wide with the half barely a minute old. Handanovic kept Slovenia in the game with a smart save from a Terry bullet header, and then touched a Rooney effort onto a post.

At this point, Slovenia were staggering around the pitch like a boxer who has been nailed with one jab too many – still just about on their feet, but with no idea what to do next. But as a second goal failed to materialise and legs started to tire, they slowly crept back into the game. A couple of free kicks came to nothing. Gareth Barry, largely anonymous throughout, conceded possession sloppily deep in his own half, leading to a sequence of chances that required brave blocks by Terry – who, despite his self-inflicted woes at the weekend, had an excellent game – and Johnson in turn.

Rooney, in England red still a shadow of the defenders’ nightmare who plays in the red of Man U, slowed with a hobble and was replaced by Joe Cole. Defoe gave way to Heskey late on as Capello sought to consolidate. (The Tottenham striker is still yet to complete 90 minutes for England after 42 caps.) Slovenia continued to knock timorously on the door, largely ineffectual but you just knew a chance had to come eventually. And, with the clock showing almost exactly 90:00, it did, the ball pinballing around the England penalty area until a sliding red shirt – Upson, I think – snatched the bullet from the gun just as the trigger was about to be pulled.

And, at last, the final whistle. England were through. As group winners, we thought at first, with the Slovenians qualifying alongside. But news of a 92nd minute winner by Landon Donovan for the USA against Algeria turned the group on its head. England had still qualified, but as runners-up, with the USA leapfrogging them and Slovenia to claim top spot. Slovenia go home.

This was not by any stretch of the imagination a vintage performance by England – it started okay, peaked at quite good either side of half-time and rapidly disintegrated to a Sunday park hack-about towards the end – but it was a massive improvement over the USA and Algeria games. Most importantly, it was enough to see them through. England will face far tougher tests in the knockout stages, but at least they will be there to face them unlike, say, France.

The echo of Italia ’90 grows ever stronger too. Then, as now, England manager Bobby Robson faced a revolt from players unhappy with his tactics. Then as now, England, drew their opening game 1-1 and battled to a goalless draw in their second, before ekeing out a nervy 1-0 win over distinctly mediocre opposition (in that case, Egypt) to clinch qualification. That tournament proved to be the most successful World Cup performance ever by an England team outside of home soil. Let’s hope it’s a good omen.

Anyway, what we know for sure is that England will take on the winners of Group D – which could mean Germany – in Bloemfontein on Sunday afternoon, with a potential quarter-final match against Argentina in Cape Town on July 3rd. It’s the more difficult path to tread, for sure, but at least we’re on the path and not the runway. Bring it on. The group stage is done and dusted as far as England are concerned, and the team can look forward to starting with a clean slate. The serious business begins now.

England player ratings (out of 10):

James 6

Johnson 6, Terry 7, Upson 5, A Cole 7

Milner 7, Lampard 6, Barry 5, Gerrard 7

Rooney 6, Defoe 7

Subs: J Cole 4, Heskey

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

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