A Close Shave for England

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Never mind the performance, feel the result. And even though England played their best game of the World Cup so far, beating the mighty Slovenia (population: 2 million) 1-0, any watching coaches won’t feel that there’s too much to fear.

Fabio Capello made three changes and he can be pretty pleased with them all. The enforced switch was at the back, where the Italian brought Matthew Upson in for the suspended Jamie Carragher. Upson looked understandably off the pace for most of the match but his goal saving intervention at the death potentially spared England its own fatal ending. Much more encouraging was James Milner, in for the thus far ineffective Aaron Lennon on the wing. Milner was my man of the match, and supplied the cross for the other newbie, striker Jermain Defoe, who did what Emile Heskey can’t, and found the back of the net with an emphatic finish.

Consistently comfortable in the first half, England should have sown the game up in the second, but wasted glorious opportunities from the likes of Defoe, Wayne Rooney (who hit the post) and then Joe Cole, who finally saw some action, after replacing a still somewhat out of sorts Rooney, who is going through the longest barren spell of his international career. Indeed, his body language when taken off indicated as much and interesting to note that there was a considerable distance between him and Capello. So much for calling Port Elizabeth the friendly city.

And so the team is spared the ignominy of a group exit for what would have been the first time since 1958 and Capello gets to fight another day. But really: the sight of some of the world’s most highly-paid footballers running down the clock by the corner flag was not a sight to make the three lions on one’s chest pulsate with pride. If they gave out World Cup’s for that ability, England would win every four years. Definite pluses came in the goalkeeper and full back departments and the Christmas tree-esque formation allowed the midfield to breathe a little easier, with Milner a (relative) revelation. What’s more, it was heartening to see the team’s group huddle at the full time whistle, a rare sign of unity in a stuttering campaign.

But if you work on the assumption — never a wise thing at the 2010 World Cup — that Germany will win its group later, then England’s path to the final (stop laughing at the back) reads as follows: Germany this Sunday, followed by Argentina, Spain and Brazil. What a difference a goal makes. And they’ll need plenty more to make any further progress.

—Update—

Naturally, Germany did indeed win, thus setting up the latest encounter in the storied history between the two nations. 1966, 1970, 1990, EURO’s 1996 and 2000 and now 2010 this weekend.


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