Tuesday 22 August 2017

Capello turns to drink as England advance

England 1
Slovenia 0

Sam Wallace at Port elizabeth

It is tempting to think of Fabio Capello on Tuesday night, one elbow resting on the bar of the Marine Protea Hotel in Port Elizabeth and a wad of notes in his hand, taking drinks orders from his players.

Or, like a latter-day Brian Clough, balancing a tray of brimful pint glasses and warning his squad they were going nowhere until they had finished the lot.

A memorable afternoon in Port Elizabeth -- a first because of the England performance and then afterwards when Capello, still buzzing with the adrenalin of victory, revealed that he had permitted his players a drink the night before the game.

Capello's biggest battle in the five days that followed the draw with Algeria was getting his players to relax. He is a keen observer of English custom and at some point in the last two and a half years he must have noticed that the English like a drink.

It is not known how many took their manager up on the offer -- they might be Englishmen, but the days of drinking a few beers the night before a game are long over in the professional game.

Yet if the gesture itself put them at ease then that much was evident in a performance that was arguably England's best performance in a tournament since the glory days of the group stages at Euro 2004.

At the start of the second half they finally cut loose, creating a series of chances that would have put the game -- and their place in the second round -- beyond doubt.

In the event they took none of them and the finale was familiar, full of the usual anxieties. On 90 minutes, England were still hanging on, rescued by a brilliantly timed lunge in the area by Matthew Upson, by far the least certain of the back four before then.

Jermain Defoe's first-half goal seemed to have been enough to win them first place in Group C until in the aftermath of the final whistle -- as Capello high-fived Football Association officials -- a goal 600 miles away changed the trajectory of England's World Cup destiny again. Landon Donovan's winner for the United States, which meant they finished first in the group, took the gloss off England's day.



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But before England start plotting their World Cup progress against Germany from Bloemfontein on Sunday, where they will play their last 16 game, Capello deserves the credit for picking a side that came alive.

That the goal was a cross from James Milner finished by Defoe, both players whom Capello had brought into the team for this game, was testament to the manager.

At last England looked as if they had come to a World Cup finals in order to play the game rather than to complain bitterly in private about each other and then go home. There were half a dozen stand-out performances, although few that could better John Terry, who was at his most belligerent, aggressive and stop-them-at-all-costs best.

Terry has a remarkable capacity to forget the immediate past and blaze onwards. It was he who gathered the players in at the end of the game in a huddle to shout whatever it is Terry shouts when he feels vindicated. Among his team-mates, Frank Lampard was exceptional, doing a better job of tidying up the midfield than he had when sent out by the FA on Monday to clear up after Terry's challenge to Capello a day earlier.

Milner too was exceptional, proving the old David Beckham rule that a cross hit early from the wing is worth 10 that are dithered over.

The one converted by Defoe was followed by two more before the end of the second half that might have made goals. Milner was a brave choice after he had to be substituted for his own good against the US, but last night he staked a claim to be one of the World Cup's brightest young stars.

His cross to the near post for Defoe was met sweetly by the striker, who had taken a yard on his marker and volleyed the ball through the hands of the impressive goalkeeper Samir Handanovic from close range.

If only it was as simple for Wayne Rooney, who remains one of Capello's unsolved problems. He hurt his right ankle, which required him to be substituted in the second half, but unfortunately there is no treatment available between now and Sunday that will realign his goalscoring instincts. When he was clean through on 58 minutes, his shot was turned on to the post by Handanovic when he really should have scored.

Rooney is still not right, he does not move around the pitch as he does when he is at his pin-sharp best for Manchester United, although even out of sorts he is still some player. He bypassed four Slovenia defenders with a clever pass in the area on 30 minutes that teed up Steven Gerrard for a shot that Handanovic saved.

England should have scored at least one more goal and had they done so they would have won the group and earned a second-round game in Rustenburg on Saturday, less than a mile from their training ground. More importantly, assuming they won that, they would have the prospect of South Korea or Uruguay in the quarter-finals rather than the current challenge, which is Argentina or Mexico.

With around 20 minutes to go, and Rooney in need of replacing, Capello made the decision to shut the game down rather than try to score a second goal.

He brought on Joe Cole for Rooney and then, even more inexplicably, Emile Heskey for Defoe. It meant that Peter Crouch, his most regular goalscorer, was left on the bench and the likes of Joe Cole and Milner were encouraged to run the ball into the corner flags and keep it there.

If it was a mistake then it was the only one that Capello made yesterday. His instincts are honed by Italian football and therefore naturally conservative. He had seen his team miss enough chances by then and he was not prepared to take further risks.

As England's players left the pitch, Beckham stood by the entrance to the tunnel to congratulate each one as they left the pitch.

A victory over a small mountain nation of two million people has never felt so good for these players.

But if it serves its purpose of reminding them that World Cup finals need not always be feared then there may not be any further reason for Capello to point his players in the direction of the bar.

Slovenia -- Handanovic, Brecko, Suler, Cesar, Jokic, Birsa, Koren, Radosavljevic, Kirm (Matavz 79), Ljubijankic (Dedic 62), Novakovic.

England -- James, Johnson, Upson, Terry, Ashley Cole, Gerrard, Lampard, Barry, Milner, Rooney (Joe Cole 72), Defoe (Heskey 86).

Ref -- Wolfgang Stark (Germany).

Irish Independent

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