From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.34 :: NO.16 :: Apr. 21, 2011

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FOOTBALL / FEATURE

How good is England?

That facile win in Cardiff (against Wales), that draw, albeit with a weakened side, against Ghana, hardly make the current English side the finished article. Over to Brian Glanville.

Has Fabio Capello succumbed to a fit of euphoria? After two far from devastating performances in a few days by his England teams — one at full strength, the other essentially a B side — he said, “I hope that people will talk about us like they did about Germany. These players are improving a lot and playing with confidence”. Not perhaps the ideal moment to emulate Germany; who had just surprisingly lost albeit in a friendly 2-1 in Moenchengladbach to the Australians. But such optimism in any case seemed excessive after victory in Cardiff against a Welsh team which plumbed the very depths of ineptitude. Followed, with an admittedly weakened team, devoid of most of the usual front-runners, which did hold Ghana to a draw, but was guilty of a host of elementary defensive errors, against a team which, just two days earlier, had played and won 3-0 in Congo, then making the long trip to London.

All very well to say, as some pundits did, that Ghana were deploying no fewer than eight of the team which breached the quarterfinals of the last World Cup and would have progressed to the semis had Uruguay's Luis Suarez not punched that ball disgracefully off the line, to be “rewarded” by the potential scorer, Asamoah Gyan, disastrously missing the subsequent penalty. He missed a very good chance at Wembley too, hitting the side when allowed to run quite clear of the porous England central defence. Only to atone for it with his glorious solo goal in injury time, when, with cool skill and supreme technique, he picked his way through that weak defence.

In Cardiff, England faced a Welsh team deprived of its salient players, the electric left-winger, Gareth Bale, without whom all hope for the weak Welsh team went out of the window. The one player of any real flair and substance left was the veteran, Craig Bellamy, who began to make things improve a little when Wales moved him from the flank into the middle for the second half. Though why they should anoint the inexperienced 20-year-old Aaron Ramsey, who had a dismal first half, as captain when Beardsley was so plainly the senior professional, ask me not.

As for England, they could hardly go wrong, having gained a sixth minute penalty thanks to a foul in the box by Wales defender Collins, put away by Frank Lampard. Did this knock the stuffing out of an already fragile Welsh team? It would never have done so under the inspiring aegis of Ted Robbins, secretary for decades of the Welsh FA before and between two World Wars, and one of the finest international team managers of all time, though in those days, of course, the role didn't officially exist.

Much was made of the fact that when Wales faced England, this last time, a number of their players came not from the Premiership but from the grandiose named Championship. That wouldn't have mattered a bit to Robbins. “Get your feet under the table!” he would tell a new recruit. “I'll be your daddy.” But that red Welsh shirt and a then third division player would become a hero for an afternoon. Once, between the wars, Robbins had to take his team to play a powerful Scotland side in midweek in the British Championship, in Edinburgh. Hard enough, but made harder still when several mean-minded English clubs refused, as was then their right, to release their players. No matter. Robbins cobbled together a team which even included a man from the Cardiff Corinthians, a non-League side. His team took the lead, however, and gave the Scots a terrible fright; their equaliser coming close to the clock.

England, indeed, strolled to their 2-0 victory in Cardiff, yet throughout the second half, they were unable to add a single goal against a largely demoralised Wales. It was surely all too easy for the likes of the undoubtedly talented and precocious Jack Wilshere to strut their stuff; he was far less in evidence against the Ghanaians, at Wembley. Wayne Rooney was surprisingly stuck out on the left flank where, it is true, he has often played for Manchester United but where his goal-scoring talents are arguably wasted.

We are told that Capello has now successfully implemented a 4-3-3 system, but I'm not sure that I can see it. Since it embraces, positively two wingers, it seems to me more of a 4-5-1 tactic, in which the wingers can move up from midfield to reinforce the attack, where the centre-forward can find himself alone. As, indeed, was the case against Ghana with the hefty Andy Carroll, essentially an old fashioned English centre-forward with a game based on power. Much, perhaps too much, was made of the goal he scored, with a strong left-footer, after the ball was flicked on, by accident or design, by the somewhat erratic Stewart Downing (exploiting a week left-back, Laddy, in the first half, when he missed a sitter). But one swallow doesn't make a summer and Capello was duly restrained in his praise, emphasising that Carroll had room to improve.

Some have described the England-Ghana match as “thrilling,” and if you enjoy a game filled with mistakes — how did Ashley Young hit the bar from just a few yards out? How was the resilient Joe Hart forced to make a splendid one-handed first half save from Gyan? How could he have carelessly kicked his clearance against Gyan, only to get away with it? — then thrilled you would be.

What Capello has discovered almost despite himself is that West Ham's Scott Parker is an ideal holding midfield player. It seemed almost perverse that against Denmark, in Copenhagen, he initially deployed Wilshere in that role, thus denying his constructive talents to the attack.

Recent “revelations” inform or misinform about just how the FA blundered into deleting the pre-World Cup break clause from Capello's contract, so that it was too costly to dismiss him, after the debacle of the South African World Cup. Now he is still there; but there is still Montenegro (who so embarrassingly forced that draw at Wembley) to face, away, if qualification for the European finals is to be gained. Both sides now have 10 points.

England should be capable of winning that vital fixture, but it would help if a sense of proportion were kept. That facile win in Cardiff, that draw, albeit with a weakened side, against Ghana, hardly make this side the finished article.



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