Sport European Championships

Friday 13 December 2019

Rooney marks his century to spare England's blushes

England 3 Slovenia 1

England captain Wayne Rooney shoots to score a penalty past goalkeeper Samir Handanovic
England captain Wayne Rooney shoots to score a penalty past goalkeeper Samir Handanovic
England's Danny Welbeck celebrates his first goal with teammates
Slovenia's Ales Mertelj shoots during their match against England

Jason Burt

After the NFL this was NFL - Numbing. Flat. Laboured. For almost an hour.

Then, from nowhere, it fired into life. Until then it was not remotely the occasion that Wayne Rooney will have dreamt of to mark his 100th cap for England.

But in the end the relieved captain led his team to victory and also claimed a goal to take him level with Jimmy Greaves - on 44 - and joint-third in his country's all-time scoring charts. As Greaves would say, "it's a funny old game".

Before kick-off Rooney had been presented with a golden cap to mark his extraordinary achievement by Bobby Charlton - who holds the scoring record of 49 which the striker will eventually surely beat - but then when this Euro 2016 qualifier unfolded it quickly descended into something far more base. It did not glitter; it was not gold.

Gridiron had been played at Wembley last weekend, with the English FA quite literally chasing the dollar, and that had left its hefty mark as England became bogged down. Roy Hodgson's team looked bereft of the invention they eventually showed to haul themselves away from the prospect of a shock defeat.

By that final whistle they had the goals and the win and the points - with Danny Welbeck scoring twice - to surely all but seal qualification for the tournament in France in two years' time as they dominate Group E with 15 points from five matches. Even if this was far from perfect.

The churn from that recent American Football encounter at Wembley was evident on the pitch, despite the obvious repair job, with even the "NFL international series" markings still visible and both six-yard boxes dark with the imperfect turf and a blotch for a centre circle. It did not bode well.

The heavy rain that fell in London during the day had also not helped with the Slovenians, opponents who deserved not to be underestimated having defeated Switzerland in this group, claiming the surface was "completely ruined".

There was also some early retribution which may have had something to do with that uneven pitch. After Adam Lallana had barrelled into a challenge he, not long after, found himself dumped to the ground by Ales Mertelj. Not that there was an immediate edge. Maybe it was the comfort England had experienced so far in qualifying, maybe, more likely, it was the air of celebration around the Rooney landmark - but it all had the feel more of a friendly than a competitive fixture.

Slovenia sat deep. They looked to counter, aware also of the pace England had in Raheem Sterling and Welbeck but it was the visitors who were afforded the first opportunity - only for Andraz Kirm to loop a header straight into Joe Hart.

Undoubtedly the pitch was cutting up but, finally, there was a shard of fine play by England and it involved Nathaniel Clyne, on his debut, bursting forward from right-back to turn the ball back to Rooney who rolled it to Sterling, who shot wide.

The frustration grew with Jack Wilshere, in particular, cutting an unhappy figure as England continued to fail to find any fluidity. Hodgson resisted the urge to make any changes but, surely, he could not have been happy with the tempo and the lack of creativity although there then was a bit of urgency has Rooney ran on, won a corner and met the kick only to drift his header across goal. Jagielka then headed straight at Handanovic. Was there finally more attacking intent?

And then an England player did score. Unfortunately it was an own goal. Slovenia gained a free-kick which was whipped in by Kurtic only for Jordan Henderson to beat Kevin Kampl to the ball - and steer his header over Hart and into the net.

It stung England into a response with Rooney again showing intent as he slalomed into the area, beating challenges only to be tripped by Cesar.

The penalty was given by the Portuguese referee Olegario Benquerenca and, fortunately, Rooney found enough power to beat Handanovic, who dived full-length, got a hand on the ball but could not keep it out.

And Welbeck was not finished. After Kieran Gibbs's cross was turned back to his Arsenal team-mate the striker sharply exchanged passes with Sterling, after earlier involvement from Clyne and Lallana, and forced his way into the area with neat control, using his thigh, before he opened up his body and shoot across Handanovic's goal.

It was Welbeck's fifth goal already in this campaign and it ended any doubt that England would not win this game. It was also a goal of a quality, out-of-kilter with what had proceeded it, but it meant England - and Rooney - ultimately had the celebration they wanted.

Telegraph

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