Friday 27 April 2018

England claim prize scalp

Paul Wilson

At least Fabio Capello can stick out his chin and look his family in the eye. Missing his son's wedding because a misunderstanding over dates left him in charge of a ragbag of England reserves getting a footballing lesson from Spain would have been one thing, but this was nothing of the sort.

When Capello belatedly joins the celebrations in Italy he can take pride in explaining that the delay was due to defeating the world champions.

Perhaps that does not make England better than Spain, or even as good, but it was an outcome much improved on the grotesque mismatch many predicted. England defended well throughout, played the game at the slower tempo Spain prefer, and prospered through the time-honoured trick of putting away one of the very few chances that came their way.

Just because putting crosses into the box has fallen out of favour in Spain does not mean the rest of the world must follow suit, and though Darren Bent may not be the silkiest of footballers and had to play most of this match in virtual isolation from his attacking colleagues, there was nothing wrong with his reaction once he got a sniff near goal.

The opening stages of this game illustrated the difficulty England were facing vividly though. At first the home side appeared incapable of keeping hold of the ball for five seconds, let alone winning it back in that time. First Joleon Lescott coughed up possession by attempting to dribble his way out of defence, then after Spain had linked about a dozen passes together Ashley Cole intercepted and gave the ball away with almost the same touch. Phil Jones recovered possession on the other wing only to pass straight into touch, and though Scott Parker and Frank Lampard showed more poise in working the ball forward through the middle they were only operating in their own half. As soon as they attempted to cross halfway the ball was lost.

Spain were not at their most urgent and incisive, however, and England survived, indeed midway through the first half Cole dispossessed a surprised Xavi with one of the cleanest challenges from behind you will see. No contact was involved, Cole just walked his opponent off the ball with the sort of precision we have come to expect from Spain.

The only problem is that England still cannot quite match the rest of Spain's game, and within another minute David Villa was holding the ball up on the edge of the area waiting for Jordi Alba to arrive on the overlap. Had the full-back's cut back found David Silva a fraction more tidily Joe Hart would at least have had a save to make.

The first shot that actually required stopping came from Frank Lampard after 31 minutes, though it was an effort from distance that said more about the lack of options available to him than any real confidence in beating Iker Casillas. Spain's best chance of the first half followed shortly afterwards when, with more time than he probably realised, Sergio Busquets went for a first-time volley from Xabi Alonso's lofted diagonal pass and spooned the ball over the bar.

Still, England could congratulate themselves on reaching half-time without conceding. Capello sent on Stewart Downing for the second half, in place of the lively yet limited Walcott, while Spain withdrew Silva and Xavi for Juan Mata and Cesc Fabregas. Silva had not looked in his best Manchester City form in the first half, though the most significant Spanish substitution was arguably allowing Pepe Reina to take over from Casillas in goal.

The Liverpool goalkeeper had still not touched the ball when England took the lead four minutes after the restart, and was slightly slow to react when Bent headed downwards from a James Milner free-kick and struck Reina's left-hand upright. The ball bounced back across goal, where Lampard touched it over the line for a gift score to celebrate his temporary elevation to the captaincy, though the most significant irony was that Spain had been undone by a form of the game they eschew. Milner had thought of nothing else but whipping over a cross from a free-kick near the touchline, and once Bent's athleticism enabled him to beat Gerard Pique in the air the masters of possession football were at the mercy of a team willing to pump the ball into the area and take their chances.

Inevitably, Spain had chances to equalise, David Villa finding the side netting with one and even more unluckily striking the post with another, Fabregas bringing a late save from Hart and missing the target with his next chance while some of England's defending in the closing stages bordering on the desperate. Yet, still giving the ball away far too often for their own good, England survived, with Lescott, Parker and Phil Jagielka all outstanding at the back. Capello even found time to bring youngsters such as Jack Rodwell, Danny Welbeck and Kyle Walker into the action, and but for a timely intervention by Alba the first two might have produced a second goal. That really would have been flattering, but after all the fuss about poppies it was fitting England used the occasion to recover their pride.


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