Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Should we believe the England hype?

England are not much nearer to winning the World Cup, not with rampant Argentina as potential quarter-final opponents, and finishing second in the Group of Extremely Unlikely Death will never rate as one of the great battle ribbons.

It's also true that the old nemesis Germany lurks in Bloomfontein on Sunday. No, the path to World Cup glory has not exactly opened up. Germany, Argentina, Spain, and then Brazil, maybe, are a series of hurdles that stretch out to a Himalayan degree.

However, there is something to cherish here in the stadium named for Nelson Mandela after their victory over Slovenia (population two million).

It is an achievement that can only be defined against a backcloth of what had threatened to be complete professional breakdown, a shameful failure to respond to the demands of the tournament which is supposed to examine every corner of a team's talent and competitive character.

What England did here, however imperfectly and at times quite wastefully, was stand up and say that they would not be slinking away bearing one of the gravest humiliations in the history of their national game.

They gave strong evidence that they had looked into the mirror and decided that they did not like what they had seen. The result was a performance that brought back some evidence that they might again be considered a serious football team after the appalling collapse of values in Cape Town last Friday night.

We cannot really talk of heroism, not in a victory by a team with the background and the resources of England over one like Slovenia, but there is something to say about the way players like Steven Gerrard and James Milner, who was fighting his way out of the personal nightmare that enveloped him in the opening game against the group winners, the United States, resisted the possibility that they might now be packing their bags in the luxurious quarters which for some days had been portrayed as a bolt-hole of hellish frustration and disillusion.

That was a development which, logic insisted, would almost certainly have led to the resignation of Fabio Capello, a man of ferocious ambition and pride who could not, surely, have continued to enjoy a highly civilised lifestyle in London while branded by a failure of his team so shocking it would have been beyond his worst imaginings when he took up the challenge two years ago.

Now Capello has a little time to continue the huge task of recovery that faced him in Cape Town.

Whether it will carry him through Sunday's round of 16 when England renew old rivalries with Germany in Bloemfontein is a question that permitted no certain answer last night, but as England dominated Slovenia so profoundly they should have won by at least three goals, for the coach there was the relief that his worst fears had not been realised.

He said England would be recognisable again and so they were in passages of play which kindled memories, so strained recently, of the team which moved through qualification with such confidence and even persuaded some to return them to the group of serious contenders.

Jermain Defoe's goal was an injection of belief and much of what followed confirmed Capello's statement that work in training had been sharpened by a new determination to, at the very least, salvage a little pride.

Gerrard, who for some took far too passive a role when his predecessor John Terry appeared to be making outrageous mischief in the wake of the appalling performance against Algeria, had plainly resolved to make a substantial statement on the field.

At times he linked beautifully with Wayne Rooney, whose limping exit near the end was another suggestion that part of his recent frustration has come from less than true belief in his fitness, and, with the hugest irony, Gerrard also combined effectively at times with Frank Lampard.

There were other moments which might have persuaded Capello that if the odds against England fulfilling his core projection that they would at least make the final remained heavy, that was no longer an open target for derision. Matthew Upson showed a marvellous clarity of thought and clean action when he denied Zlatko Dedic the chance to make devastation when he was free in the penalty area in the last minutes of excruciating tension.

Capello also had reason again to wonder at the strange, if sometimes wretched complexities of the dichotomy existing between John Terry's warrior nature on the field and something much less uplifting off it.

Terry said he was here to redeem the idea that he was a one-man conspiracy designed to bring down his own team and, not for the first time, proved he makes the best case for himself when the action is fierce. It was not that England were weighed down by defensive pressure, but there were times, when the flow of English attack had been repulsed, often fortuitously, when Terry was required. He responded well, and there should be no hardship in acknowledging it.

However, if Capello had reason to recognise his team again, and some of its best qualities – which he said was impossible in the haunting angst of Cape Town – he may well have settled warmly on the resurrection of Milner.

Scarcely a week ago it was near impossible to imagine from the Aston Villa man a performance of such commitment – and solid effect. He supplied the perfect ball for Defoe's exultant volley and he was never less than relentless in his conviction that this was the day he would restate his credentials as a young international footballer of both talent and nerve.

In this Milner almost certainly provided Capello with the most encouraging evidence that England had indeed emerged from some serious re-examination with a restored will to compete.

Slovenia are only Slovenia, it is true, but they did banish Guus Hiddink's Russia on the road here and it would, in view of England's approach to yesterday's game, have been crazed optimism to have put beyond them the possibility of staging another ambush.

England resisted such a fate, however, and maybe they did a little more than win the match that brought survival. Perhaps they won the right to sleep a little easier.

Belfast Telegraph


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