There are empty seats at Wembley this evening. The FA’s hyperbolic per-match ticket advertising for this match may have made inferences to this being the match that everybody wants to see, but the fact that the advertisements were on display anywhere at all told its own story. There are red dots pock-marking the background at the national stadium this evening, betraying the feeling that this match is more of a tussle than a battle of Britain. Perhaps the perceived gulf between the two teams makes a difference – England are currently ranked fourth in the FIFA World Rankings, whilst Wales are nestled uncomfortably between Haiti and Grenada in one hundred and seventeenth place, make of that what you wish – but perhaps we should be looking at a ticket pricing policy that never seems likely to be popular with the economy being rumoured to be set to tank again as being one of major causes of the apathy surrounding this match.
At the end of last week, England overcame a potentially tricky trip to Sofia with a critic-silencingly thorough display against Bulgaria, and the icing on the cake of their highly successful evening came with the news that Wales had done them a massive favour by beating Montenegro in the group’s other match that evening. Those two results combined mean that a win this evening will put England on course qualification for next year’s European Championships, but that Wales win means that the wilder excesses of hysteria that may have followed this fortuitousness may have been tempered. Montenegro, as we have been in recent months, are a decent team and Wales’ FIFA ranking seems at odds with the quality of some of the players in their team.
Friday night saw, by common assent, Gareth Bale’s finest performance thus far in a Wales shirt, but they are not a one-man team. Aaron Ramsey is a fine young player and goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey has only conceded one goal for Wolverhampton Wanderers in three Premier League matches so far this season. Gary Speed is turning them around. And then, of course, there is The Wembley Tetchiness. The England team still frequently looking like a group of men wearing ill-fitting suits at the stadium that is understood to be their home. They haven’t won here for three hundred and sixty-seven days, and their run of results over that period have hardly made for encouraging reading – a defeat against France and draws against Montenegro, Ghana and Switzerland. If confidence counts for anything, this, combined with Wales’ spirit-lifting win on Friday night, makes this match something a little tighter than the one-sided contest that the FIFA Rankings might hint at.
“Tighter”, however, is not the same as “more interesting”, and for half an hour this match floats by at the glacial pace of a game of crown green bowling, with Wales providing what little quality there is on display. England look baffled by the possibility that Wales are considering the option of pushing forward, and apprehension levels rise from “half-asleep” to “almost alert” whenever Bale gets the ball, although chances on goal are limited to a couple of optimistic chances from distance. Slowly, though, England start to thaw, and after thirty-five minutes they take the lead with effectively their first shot on target of the night. Stewart Downing, who has been patrolling the right-hand side of the midfield with the insouciance of a supporting actor from an Alain Delon film, picks up the ball on the touchline, plays a low ball into the centre and Ashley Young, who bends himself into a shape approaching that of a collapsible tent, yet still manages to drive the ball past Hennessey from six yards out. It is categorically not as much as England deserve, up to this point.
The second half begins nominally more encouraging for England, with Young getting away on the right-side, cutting in and seeing his shot-cum-cross beaten away by Hennessey. Soon enough, though, the torpor returns, with only light relief from the hitherto anonymous Frank Lampard, who picks the ball out from under his own feet and shoots over the crossbar. At the other end, meanwhile, the extent to which Bale could yet turn the game on its head is thrown into sharp focus every time he collects the ball, but it’s too little and too rare. Meanwhile, Steve Morison, perhaps the loneliest man on earth, watches on, having finally proved that the breach between player and supporter can be breached. He is, twenty minutes into the second half, replaced by Robert Earnshaw. Five minutes later, Lampard is replaced by Scott Parker. The sun, to the extent that it was ever shining, is surely setting on his international career now.
With fourteen minutes to play, Wales’ chance suddenly comes. It has been building for a little while, a small well of confidence, possibly brought about England’s anaemia. Blake climbs to head down a free-kick from the left, and Earnshaw, with Joe Hart already sprawling himself at his feet, drives the ball high and handsome, over the crossbar and away. Still, though England are rattled and Chris Gunter brings a terrific save from Hart a couple of minutes later, although the whistle has already blown for an infringement. England are hanging on now, and Earnshaw’s shot with three minutes to play forces Hart down to save while, at the other end of the pitch, Ashley Young, one of the few England players to have shown much verve or invention this evening, skips inside from the left but drags his shot wide.
The match finishes with the single goal having decided matters, and England supporters may wish to reflect upon the small question of what this has come to. Has Wembley become an albatross around this team’s neck? Recent performances would certainly seem to suggest so, and the fact that the two best players on the team both came from the losing side says a lot about the paucity of a team that seemed so confident just a few days earlier. This England team is not going to win the European Championships. All of this may come as little consolation to Wales supporters this evening, and their team’s performance was worthy of a point that they would surely have earned had Earnshaw not squandered his evening and, with a decent sprinkling of young players they are capable of continuing their recent upward curve. Tonight, however, was about one goal and one miss, and fortune favoured the home side. Other than that, there was nothing to separate the fourth and one hundred and seventeenth best teams in the world this evening.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter here.