Before getting overly optimistic and sanguine, and without being disrespectful, it was ‘only’ Slovenia, and a group game. We shouldn’t have got into a situation where a win was essential and where Slovenia were built up as such formidable opposition – this should have been the leisurely group finale, sauntering around carelessly in the afternoon sun, not the pressure cooker it became. Nevertheless, the pressure was indeed on, and England duly delivered. Moreover, we displayed a pleasing amount of vim and vigour.
The first ten minutes had me anxious that a frustrating old time was again in store, but luckily this was a false alarm and England quickly took hold of the game. With greater urgency and crispness, you could visibly see the confidence, passion and drive returning, and the goal, on 22 minutes, came at an optimum time to settle any anxieties.
Two of Capello’s personnel changes combined as Aston Villa’s James Milner crossed for Tottenham’s Jermain Defoe to swiftly nip ahead of his marker and shoot past (at) the keeper; illustrating the sort of direct and incisive movement that had been previously missing. Certainly, after a nervy first few touches, Milner had an excellent game. Replacing Lennon, he was solid, industrious and provided a variety of dangerous crosses. Defoe didn’t see a great deal of the ball, but when he did he looked sharp and dangerous, his goal encapsulating his instinctive edge. Both certainly did their chances of starting against Germany no harm at all.
Aside from the goal, England carved out chances with far greater regularity and aplomb than shown in the opening games. During the first half, Frank Lampard blasted over and Steven Gerrard went very close with a placed strike from the edge of the area, whilst the opening 25 minutes of the second half saw England pepper the Slovenia penalty area and Rooney hit the post. Certainly, the balance between Lampard and Gerrard – seemingly situated in an interchangeable diamond – worked with more fluidity and Gerrard was able to take up more threatening positions. Personally I felt the Liverpool linchpin was (at last) one of England’s best players. His passing was sharp, he drove forward on occasion and executed some sublime pin-point long-ranged passes. But, the rest of the team also looked good, playing with more passion and attacking freedom.
Of course, it being England, we were left sweating as the second goal didn’t come. One slip up, one bit of fluke, or a Slovenia wonder-goal and England would have crashed out. Hence, we must still learn to really kill a team, and the game, off – be ruthless, be clinical, strike when the irons hot, blah, blah, blah. Luckily, when we needed to defend we did so robustly. West Ham’s Matthew Upson and Chelsea’s John Terry formed a reasonable partnership as both looked sturdy and both made some vital blocks. Upson’s sliding block came late on with precision timing, Terry’s was beautiful. Standing the striker up, he threw himself in front of the shot exactly when required, before the real brilliance was displayed – lunging head-first to try and prevent another effort on goal. This lunge, this beautiful beautiful lunge, was chest beating, lion roaring poetry. Lastly, David James deserves a mention. He was steady, reliable and collected, letting nothing bobble stray; the calming influence the defence needed and benefited from.
So, overall, a good display. They needed a kick up the backside, they were given one and they delivered. Everyone will probably now be exalting our inevitable World Cup triumph and we need to remember it was only 1-0 against Slovenia. Nevertheless, England did what was required, under pressure and with confidence. This slow start and building momentum could clearly benefit, and England always seem to blossom with backs against the wall. USA’s late goal means the more treacherous road is to be taken. We’d of course like to optimise our chances of progression and meet the ‘big boys’ later on, but you’ve got to face them at some point, and that point comes on Sunday against the old adversary…
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