Steven Beacom: England must now do it the hard way
Well, they made it. After all the wailing, mostly from John Terry, and the gnashing of teeth, led by Fabio Capello, England are through to the knockout stages.
Talk about doing it the hard way. And this, having been involved in the easiest group of the competition.
There was a huge sense of relief amongst the England players when the final whistle blew in Port Elizabeth yesterday after the 1-0 victory over Slovenia.
You could see it in their faces, suddenly free of the tension that has gripped the squad since they landed in South Africa a few weeks ago.
With that first victory under their belts, Capello’s men wore smiles, not frowns.
The dismal draws against America and Algeria seemed forgotten as England players bounced off the pitch, safe in the knowledge that they had avoided the most embarrassing World Cup exit in the nation’s history and confident that after surviving a nightmare scenario their dreams of glory can now be realised.
What a difference a win makes.
There may be a pot of gold for Capello and his team in the Rainbow Nation after all.
They are going to have to improve though. A lot.
Despite what some of the TV experts would have you believe, England’s victory over a sloppy Slovenian outfit was not that convincing, clinical or classy.
Agreed, it was a highly committed performance and a much better showing than the shocking scoreless outing against Algeria, but it won't frighten Germany, who they will meet in the last 16, or Argentina, likely opponents if England make it as far as the quarter-finals. That’s the punishment for not topping the group.
Yes, England really are doing this the hard way. Give them credit though. They needed to do a job in their final group match and they did it.
Capello had shown earlier in the week, when slapping down a militant Terry, that there is only one leader in his gang.
As if to confirm the point, his team selection had Joe Cole on the bench again, Steven Gerrard out wide on the left, James Milner back on the right and Wayne Rooney partnered by Jermain Defoe rather than playing in his preferred lone front man role.
The pressure was on Capello, just as much as his underperforming players, before the Slovenia clash.
He has built up an outstanding reputation, handling big time players perfectly and getting big decisions right.
Doubts about the man earning a whopping £6 million per year from the FA had started to surface though in the last week.
Was he going to be the latest in a long line of managers who simply couldn’t handle the England job?
In his biggest match as an international boss, he stuck to what he thought was best, did not allow pressure from players to cloud his judgement and in the end came up trumps.
England looked like a team yesterday. There was a spirit about them missing previously, a togetherness and enough flashes of quality to earn the points required.
Most of the quality came from James Milner, who made a mockery of complaints about the new World Cup ball, by giving an exhibition of crossing in the first half that David Beckham would have been proud of.
So often in this tournament wide men have failed to deliver. Milner excelled on that front providing the most inviting ball for the lively Defoe to volley home and give England the lead.
They should have added to it through Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard, who once again were far from their best.
But David James in goal stayed solid and ahead of him Glen Johnson, Terry, Matthew Upson and Ashley Cole stood firm.
It should be the same team for Sunday afternoon’s clash with Germany.
Capello will need to get much more from his players, especially Rooney, but there is momentum with England now.
I fancy them to win in 90 minutes and ram Franz Beckenbauer's kick and rush taunts down his throat.
Even so, England should practice penalties, just in case!