Thursday, November 22, 2007

Another fine Mess.

Another fine Mess.

After being handed a reprieve last Saturday by Israel’s last minute win over Russia, all England had to do last night was keep cool and not give the game away. A draw was good enough. It would see them through to next summer’s European Championships to be held in Austria and Switzerland. At Wembley, before an estimated crowd of 90,000 surely that was not too much to ask. In fact, on Sky News last Saturday evening, Chris Scudamore seemed confident that England were through but for the formality of playing the game. And so it had to happen.

In pouring rain and on a Wembley pitch that looked less than best the stage was set. An under-strength team for sure. With Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry all out because of injury, plus David Beckham and Paul Robinson surprisingly excluded from first team selection no-one seemed sure what to expect. Had England’s manager, Steve McClaren something up his sleeve? Were his controversial changes tactical nous? A cunning plan? Well we were soon to find out.

England started well enough bringing the play to Croatia. That is for 8 minutes. With a 4–3-3 formation, Peter Crouch up front with Shaun-Wright Philips and Gareth Barry getting in behind, it was plain what the tactics were. But on Croatia’s perhaps first foray into the England half, Nico Kranjcar, finding himself with space, chanced a dipping right foot strike that ‘international-debut’ keeper Scott Carson failed to collect, deflecting the ball up into the corner of his net. The players were stunned. The fans more so. Six minutes later, on counterattack, the Arsenal player, Eduardo da Silva, with some clever footwork, found Olic on the edge of the box, and the Hamburg player side-stepped the stranded Carson and it was 0-2.

As the rain continued down England suddenly seemed a forlorn and directionless side. With heads dipping they laboured and one could only stare, wondering what changes the manager might make, and if he did, would he act quickly or wait till half-time.

The second half started with Wright-Philips substituted for Beckham, and Barry for Defoe. Perhaps there was hope. The three-lions would fight. And amazingly in the 56th minute, the linesman on the far side of play, spotted a shirt-pull as Jermain Defoe attempted to get on the end of a punted cross from Joe Cole. A brief consultation resulted in a penalty-kick being awarded to England. Up stepped Frank Lampard, looking nervous certainly, but he fixed his gaze and slotted a low drive into the right side of the net, sending keeper Stipe Pletikosa the wrong way. England were back in it. Eleven minutes later Beckham, picking up Gerard’s hard-won ball, delivered a sweet cross to the centre and Peter Crouch running on, chested it down before hammering past the helpless keeper. England now could have the draw they needed. And there it should have been consolidated. England should have pressed for a third or at least played the possession game, but instead they began to fall back. And the Croatians having already brought two redemptive saves from Carson in the second half were not content to let the matter settle. Increasingly they looked dangerous, winning possession in the midfield and pushing forward. Then in the 77th minute, substitute Mladen Petric found himself unchallenged and fired an angled shot that Carson could only stretch to, then watch as it zipped past him goal-bound. England did try to rally and late on Darren Bent made the best of a half-chance, looping it just centimetres over the bar. But by then the writing was on the wall. A grim-faced bench sat, hunched forward as the last few minutes counted down. With the final whistle Steve McClaren stood and was escorted down the tunnel.

A bad night for England and for English football. A performance well below par. Listless and lacking self-belief, the players seemed overawed and unsure when faced with what was expected of them. Questions have already been asked about McClaren’s management skills and his team choices. Now surely they will rise to a crescendo.

The only consolation for England fans is that they hung on a little longer than Scotland. Four days to be precise. Though I suspect north of the border there will be some quiet satisfaction with this result. Austria/Switzerland next summer may well show the cream of European football but it will be without England.

Copyright (C) Peter Millington Nov 2007