Stuck in a world where ability never matches belief
Traditional hunt for scapegoats awaits Lampard and Co, says Richard Sadlier
Frank Lampard recalled in his autobiography that the sight of the moon after missing a penalty in Germany 2006 reminded him of his daughter Luna and that somehow it made him feel all the better. It softened the blow, I guess, and maybe it gave him a much-needed sense of perspective. Perhaps it did, but a couple of points are worth mentioning. Not only was it sunny on the evening in question, but the roof of the stadium in Gelsenkirchen was shut at the time. England lost that penalty shoot-out to Portugal and returned home the following day. I can't wait to hear his version of events when he soon leaves South Africa.
England have somehow played their way into a scenario where failure to beat Slovenia on Wednesday will send them home in disgrace without recording a single win. If the performance against the USA was a cause for concern, Friday brought utter embarrassment. England players confounding high expectations is a regular sight at major tournaments, but the disjointed, fragile and aimless display against Algeria was one of the poorest produced by a group of highly-rated players for many a World Cup. And all this in one of the weakest groups in which they could have been drawn.
It seems clear that the pressure is proving too great for this particular group, but such mental frailties cannot be addressed mid-tournament. The greatest athletes in every sport have succeeded by preparing well in advance for the conditions under which they know they are required to perform. For reasons best known to the England management, it appears there has been little work done in this area. Anxiety and fear have taken over as a result, and it is blindingly clear to all.
Lessons from the past week need to be learned, and learned fast. For example, tactics and formations are irrelevant when players of such talent are seemingly unable to complete 15-yard passes to others wearing the same shirt. An unwillingness to work hard to recover lost possession of the ball cannot be solved by a change of goalkeeper. Replacing Aaron Lennon with Shaun Wright-Phillips has no meaningful impact of any kind, and Emile Heskey should never be included in the plans again.
Heskey appears terrified of being faced with an opportunity to score for his country. If his pace and strength are assets, his inability to control a football make his involvement hard to explain. It's difficult to think of others who have reached this level having produced so little in so long. It's even harder to think of any at all who play with such little self-belief.
The focus on Wayne Rooney may have distracted everyone in the build-up, but his only contribution to the tournament so far has been his criticism of the England fans who failed to appreciate what they saw against Algeria. His temperament was called into question in the pre-tournament friendlies, but his outburst underlined the lack of understanding modern players have of those who support them. He has looked unfit and uninterested on the pitch; and now seems petulant and arrogant off it. Given what was expected of him, Rooney has been the biggest disappointment of them all.
John Terry was quick to point out that unlike Germany and Spain, England have yet to be beaten. Predictably, he called for the fans and the press to get behind them for the greater good, adding that anything else would be unhelpful.
As supporters desperately quote examples of successful teams who started poorly in previous World Cups, the players know they are one result away from infamy. Once elimination from the competition is secured, and that day is fast approaching, scapegoats will be sought and excuses will be plentiful. Capello may not survive, Robert Green will be forced into international retirement, and a root-and-branch study of the game in England will be commissioned by some clown in the FA. Heads will be scratched all over England as to why they have failed so spectacularly, having placed themselves as one of the pre-tournament favourites. How could everyone have gotten things so wrong?
And before you know it, Euro 2012 will be here and they will repeat the process all over again. They will never learn.