Roy Hodgson's half time gamble pays off as late Sturridge strike completes England's turnaround
He got it wrong and began to stare into the abyss, but just when England’s Euro 2016 prospects appeared to be turning to dust, Roy Hodgson went for broke and hit the jackpot with substitutes Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge securing a dramatic victory against Wales in Lens.
Trailing to Gareth Bale’s 40th minute free-kick-, following a terrible mistake by goalkeeper Joe Hart, England appeared to be heading into a dead-end with Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane struggling to justify Hodgson’s faith in the attacking pair.
But a half-time switch, hauling off Sterling and Kane for Vardy and Sturridge, proved decisive, enabling England to turn the tide and unlock a door which had previously been slammed shut.
Sturridge’s winner, two minutes into stoppage time, saw England claim three points and move to the top of Group B and virtually confirm qualification for the knock-out stages.
And having found a way to win, Hodgson will surely now stick with the formula which accounted for Wales when England face Slovakia in St Etienne next Monday.
Needing a victory to lift the mood and put themselves in pole position in the group following Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Russia in Marseille, England at least had the omens on their side going into the game.
Unbeaten against Wales since 1984 and having claimed a 2-0 win against Colombia at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis in a crucial group game at the 1998 World Cup, England could at least look to some positives ahead of this so-called Battle of Britain.
Hodgson’s team even got to play in their own kit, unlike Wales, who were forced to turn out in their grey and lime-green change strip due to Uefa's bizarre insistence that England’s red socks would clash with those of the Welsh.
Perhaps too much was going England’s way off the pitch because on it, in the first-half at least, nothing went the way of the English.
Having retained the same starting XI which dominated, but failed to win, against the Russians, Hodgson clearly believed his players possessed sufficient quality and cutting edge to overcome Chris Coleman’s team.
But the shortcomings which cost England victory in Marseille returned almost from the first kick here in Lens, with Sterling – hugely fortunate to keep Jamie Vardy out of the starting line-up – missing a gilt-edged chance to put his team ahead on seven minutes.
The Manchester City winger, whose club form tailed off sharply in the second half of the season, was picked out six yards from goal by a perfectly-weighted Adam Lallana cross, but Sterling’s lack of confidence was borne out by a woeful finish with his left foot, which skewed over the bar from close range.
Sterling did not recover, losing the ball and his self-belief whenever he was in possession.
But despite Sterling’s poor display, England dominated possession and kept Wales penned into their own territory.
There was a lack of zip to England’s play and Wales were able to contain on the edge of their penalty area, although three mistakes – two by captain Ashley Williams and one by James Chester – gave England opportunities.
All three were spurned, however, and it became a story of missed half-chances.
Wayne Rooney skied a shot high over the bar from 30 yards, Gary Cahill saw a backwards header saved by goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey and Chris Smalling headed narrowly wide from a Rooney corner – the England captain having replaced Harry Kane on set-piece duties.
England also had strong claims for a penalty dismissed by German referee Felix Brych on 32 minutes when the left hand of Ben Davies blocked Kane’s goalbound header – Davies’s right hand was, at the time, tugging his Tottenham team-mate’s shirt.
Brych raced away, unmoved by England’s appeals, and the sucker punch was to follow on 40 minutes when Bale gave Wales the lead.
Rooney had given the free-kick away, mis-controlling a pass before bundling over Hal Robson-Kanu, but it was almost 35 yards from goal, so surely too far for Bale to threaten Hart.
Not so. The Real Madrid forward, who had spent the build-up to this game taunting England, showed his boot can be as brutal as his tongue by beating Hart with a dipping strike.
Hart was culpable, making an awful attempt to save, with his limp wrist failing to push the ball away and he knew it, burying his head in the turf as Bale raced away to celebrate in front of England’s silent fans.
Booed off at half-time, England were now shipping water and treated to chants of ‘England’s going home’ by the outnumbered, but noisy, Wales supporters.
Hodgson had to act and he was bold at the interval, taking off Kane and Sterling and handing Vardy and Sturridge the chance to rescue England.
Fortune favours the brave, but in this instance, Hodgson had no other option but to bolster his team’s attacking threat.
It paid off, however. The pace and movement of Sturridge transformed England as an attacking force, made them more fluid, and Sturridge gave Wales a quick warning with a shot narrowly over the bar on 53 minutes.
Hart then smothered an Aaron Ramsey volley before Rooney forced Hennessey into a full-stretch save to tip a curling effort around the post.
England were turning the screw on Wales, forcing them deeper and deeper into their own box and the breakthrough came on 56 minutes when Vardy struck from three yards.
Wales protestly loudly that the Leicester forward was offside, but the German officials were correct to allow the goal, with Sturridge’s floated cross being headed into Vardy’s path by Williams.
The goal lifted England and saw them produce the flowing, attacking football which had deserted them in the first-half.
Sturridge sent another effort over the bar as England pushed for a second, but sensing that Wales were tiring, Hodgson sent on Manchester United teenager Marcus Rashford in an effort to create more problems for Coleman’s players.
Rashford added unpredictability in place of Lallana, ghosting past his marker before delivering an early cross, but Wales were now beginning to defend for their lives.
Williams and Chester produced simultaneous sliding blocks to deny Rooney on 77 minutes after the England captain had made space for a shot with a turn on the edge of the penalty area.
As the clocked ticked down, Wales appeared to be treading in quicksand, but England also began to find the terrain too heavy to navigate.
Chances began to dry up, despite the efforts of Sturridge and Rashford, but just as the game appeared to be up, Sturridge delivered, squeezing a shot in at the near post, to secure a huge victory, in terms of points and morale.
It proved an inspired change with Vardy turning the ball home 10 minutes into the second half from Sturridge's ball into the box. The goal initially appeared offside with Bale among those protesting wildly. However linesman Stefan Lupp did superbly to spot that the final touch before the ball reached Vardy came from the head of Wales captain Ashley Williams.
With England pressing for the winner Hodgson brough on Marcus Rashford on 72 minutes, with the Manchester United youngster becoming England's youngest ever player in the competition, beating Wayne Rooney's record set at Euro 2004 by four days.
Rashford played well, but the hero was to be Sturridge who poked home in the 92nd minute to spark wild celebrations.
The result means England are almost guaranteed to go through to the knock-out stage.
(© Independent News Service)
Independent News Service