Friday 24 January 2020

Rooney can't save England as Hart heroics earn point

Slovenia 0 England 0

England's Theo Walcott (L) vies with Slovenia's Bostjan Cesar (Photo: JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
England's Theo Walcott (L) vies with Slovenia's Bostjan Cesar (Photo: JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Sam Wallace

Twenty-four hours earlier he had been a big part of the problem but with 17 minutes left in Ljubljana and his team fresh out of ideas, Wayne Rooney was once again part of the solution on another evening when the new dawn for England was difficult to discern.

The deposed captain was summoned from the substitutes' bench by Gareth Southgate as his young team laboured against Slovenia, in a World Cup qualifier that showed up just about all their problems. No fluency in attack and a certain skittishness in defence, it was Joe Hart who was the outstanding English player, coming to his team's rescue more than once.

Without Rooney, the handbrake was supposed to have been released on Southgate's young side, but they played with much of the usual fear and trepidation in the first half that is their 50-year inheritance. On balance, you might argue that this was a decent point away from home but this is a country ranked 67th in the world by Fifa whom England have never failed to beat in four previous meetings.

It ended with Rooney wearing the captain's armband once more, handed back to him by Jordan Henderson as soon as he came on, and Marcus Rashford granted his usual substitute's cameo for the last 10 minutes. By the end, the home team had turned the screw and Southgate will have been happy with the point.

Hard going in the first half, and that would be putting it politely for an England team who just did not seem to know the route to goal before the break. For all the foraging of Henderson in deep midfield and the running of Dele Alli 30 yards away from his captain, there was just a fundamental disconnect between the front and the back of this team.

They kept it simple for the most part, aside from one monumental mess-up by Eric Dier who sent a back-pass short and Slovenia were presented with three consecutive chances, one that Hart saved, another that struck the post and a third that went wide.

That moment seemed to spook England and to say they were cautious for the rest of the half, would be an understatement. Their instinct was to go backwards and sideways and Jesse Lingard and Theo Walcott on the wings will have wondered at times if they had simply been overlooked by the rest of their team-mates.

It did not matter for that first half that Rooney was on the bench because even without the man blamed for slowing England down in the past the team were stupendously ponderous. There were no meaningful combinations of passes that might have opened up the Slovenia team and Daniel Sturridge was, as usual, playing his own tune.

He picked up a first-half booking which meant that he had to be careful from then on. He was also aggrieved not to get a penalty for a blatant body-check from the midfielder Rene Krhin in the 15th minute as he chased a ball in the area from Henderson. The England players did not spend much time protesting.

The problem was that these players know better than anyone when their performances are falling off a cliff, and that added to the general mood of anxiety about the team. They ended the half struggling to string together the kind of passing sequences that should be second nature. Solid performers like Kyle Walker were permitting basic errors to creep into their game.


But Hart could say that he had responded when called upon. His save in the 10th minute from the Slovenia striker Roman Bezjak was a good stop when England needed rescuing by their Serie A goalkeeper.

There were some signs of encouragement, especially in John Stones who looked sure-footed in possession and was prepared to take the ball in midfield without any of the risk-taking that can put him in trouble. Henderson covered the ground and made up for the times when England gave possession away cheaply.

Hart's best save of the night came from Jasmin Kurtic's header which was stopped with one Hart hand and then flicked out of the goal with the other as he fell back. He hit his arm on the post as he came down and needed a long period of treatment.

Andros Townsend replaced Walcott, whose evening had been forgettable before Rooney finally entered the fray for cap No 118.

He took up a position behind Sturridge and four minutes later made a run into the middle which only required a cutback from the Liverpool man that never came. There was another shot from Rooney but no dream end for the man handed back the England armband. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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