Wilshere hits superb brace as England survive scare
Slovenia 2 England 3
Published 15/06/2015 | 02:30
Stripped to the waist, Jack Wilshere marched from the pitch at the Stozice Stadium, laughing as he was sprayed from a water bottle brandished by Kieran Gibbs. Wilshere was soaked anyway, with sweat.
This was the 23-year-old's finest performance for his country, standing up to be counted when England craved inspiration against a physical, counter-attacking hosts, scoring two thunderous goals.
To many eyes, the focus shifted away from Wilshere to Wayne Rooney, who ignored an elbow to the face to score the winner and move alongside Gary Lineker and one behind Bobby Charlton's England goalscoring record of 49.
The focus also turned to a beaming Roy Hodgson, whose tactics and selection have been criticised but this was his sixth Euro 2016 qualifying win out of six and England have now gone through a season unbeaten for the first time in 24 years.
But Wilshere was key. He was the heartbeat, brains and immaculate left foot of this England display.
Without his self-belief, touch and sense of adventure, England would not be celebrating a sixth win out of six on the road to France and the 2016 European Championship finals.
Without Wilshere's decision to push up, moving within range of Samir Handanovic's goal, Hodgson would have been assailed with further criticism and his defence subjected to even more of a brutal post-mortem.
For 57 minutes, England had been full of passing but it was largely lightweight football, lacking the "ruthless" edge demanded by Hodgson.
England managed 16 attempts at goal, but only six on target.
Wilshere made his attempts count, twice sending the ball flying from range past Handanovic, the widely-admired Inter Milan goalkeeper. He has waited 28 games to get off the mark with his country and the wait was certainly worth it.
The Gunner is a technically gifted player, a character with the swagger to take the game to opponents, but his scoring return is hardly impressive - he has scored only six times in 100 league appearances for Arsenal.
This simply confirmed what Arsene Wenger has always argued: that Wilshere can and should be scoring more.
Hodgson prefers Wilshere stationed deeper, and has used him almost as a holding midfielder at times this season but this highlighted his threat when released upfield.
When Michael Carrick is fit, he has to return, allowing Wilshere a more advanced role.
Slovenia's anthem seemed friendly enough, promoting "God's blessing on all nations; no war, no strife; no more shall foes, but neighbours be" but the hosts' intensity and occasional physicality reminded England of the task in hand.
Slovenia were quick to close down England's players, swift to break through Fiorentina's excellent Josip Ilicic and clinical through Milivoje Novakovic and Nejc Pecnik.
England began impressing only when Wilshere began raiding forward more in the second half and when Adam Lallana replaced Phil Jones.
Hodgson inexplicably persisted with Jones, a centre-back, at right-back despite Nathaniel Clyne being in better form. It was a bizarre call.
England had some first-half chances but Raheem Sterling, having been cleverly released by Rooney, lifted his effort over the bar.
Lineker immediately recommended "an hour a day finishing" practice.
Rio Ferdinand was looking on, tweeting the question: "has an England manager had a more shallow pool to pick from".
The real dearth was in defence and a reminder of why this is the poorest generation of English defensive talent in living memory was confirmed eight minutes before the break.
Jones failed with a throw-in, hardly the most demanding of arts, setting the stage for a Slovenian counter.
Ilicic noted that England's attempted offside trap resembled a zig-zag line with Gary Cahill particularly out of sync.
Chris Smalling failed to deal with Novakovic, who timed his run intelligently.
England's defence was outwitted and outsprinted by a 36-year-old who plays for Nagoya Grampus and Novakovic ran through and calmly slid the ball past Joe Hart.
It was wretched defending by England. Although it was only the second goal conceded in qualifying (with the other being a Jordan Henderson own goal), England's defence has never convinced.
To think that England had defenders of the quality of Gary Neville, Ashley Cole, John Terry, Sol Campbell, Jamie Carragher and Ferdinand himself at the 2006 World Cup finals.
Jones did not appear for the second half. Lallana came on to play behind Rooney with Henderson dropping to right-back.
Clyne had to content himself with the consoling words from nearby England fans sitting in the Slovenian section.
Yet Lallana made a difference, bringing control and persistence to the final third.
When Sterling did well to work the ball to Lallana after 57 minutes, the substitute controlled it, rode some challenges and the ball eventually popped out to Wilshere.
He struck the ball first-time with great power and accuracy, giving Handanovic no chance.
Rooney then missed a straightforward opportunity, ballooning the ball over.
The heavens opened as if in some biblical outrage. ITV momentarily lost their signal but it was fortunately restored in time for Wilshere's second, a goal sublime in build-up and finish.
Henderson and Andros Townsend combined down the right before Lallana's elegant flick teed up Wilshere, who took a touch and then unleashed a strike past Handanovic even better than his first.
England celebrated wildly and Hart even ran across for a quick chat with Gary Neville and jabbed the coach playfully in the ribs.
Yet England's defence continued to cause palpitations. Kevin Kampl drove the ball down the left and Henderson was missing, allowing Bojan Jokic to cross it first-time.
Nejc Pecnik jumped above Kieran Gibbs to head his effort past Hart, scoring a goal of such quality that must surely have surprised those Sheffield Wednesday fans who watched him labour in the 2012-'13 season.
Clyne immediately came on to bring some expertise to right-back.
Rooney then took an elbow from Bostjan Cesar to the face. The pair have previous, with Rooney having caught Cesar on the ankle at Wembley in 2009, putting the centre-half out of action for five weeks.
Before returning to Wembley last year, Cesar last year voiced his anger over Rooney's challenge but emphasised he did "not want to kill him".
Rooney had come to bury Cesar though, firing in the winner from the edge of the area.
Without a goal since scoring for Manchester United against Aston Villa on April 4, Rooney slid across the pitch in celebration in front of the jubilant England supporters.
The final whistle was greeted with an almighty cheer by England's fans.
The only jarring note was the sight of Clyne heading quickly to the tunnel. (© Daily Telegraph, London)