Two games, six points and seven goals. On the pitch, at least, it is starting to feel worryingly as if this summer’s meltdown in South Africa never happened for England. Off it, meanwhile, it has been a busy week in very different ways for England’s players and their PR people, and the suspicion remains that the team are hanging on by their fingernails with their opening two results from the qualifying campaign for Euro 2012. The gutter press, who have long since decided that they will force Fabio Capello by hook or by crook, have been somewhat quiet on the matter this morning (though Capello, if he hasn’t thought to do this already, would be best advised to change the PIN on his mobile phone on a daily basis for the forseeable future), but there can be no question that this nonsense will start again if (or when) England drop points during this qualifying campaign. For how long, though, can Capello keep the wolves from the door?
Perhaps it helps him that the extra-curricular activities of one or two of the players, most notably Wayne Rooney, have deflected the slavering hoards over the last few days. When the tabloid press broke their story over the weekend, at least part of Rooney’s recent shyness in front of goal started to make some sort of sense. We can only guess at the extent to which the players have been cossetted from the excesses of the tabloid press over the last week or so (and, similarly, we can only speculate over the timing of the release of the Rooney story – a cynic could be tempted to the conclusion that releasing the story in the middle of five days of international matches could have been done deliberately in order to destabilise the team ahead of a potentially tricky away match), but they opened at least one pressure valve with an encouraging, if somewhat flattering, 4-0 win against Bulgaria on Friday night.
Skip forward five days from that, and Switzerland in Basel is a tricky match. The Swiss were, of course, the only team to beat Spain at the World Cup finals during the summer and feel a long way from the team that failed on the pitch when hosting the last European Championships. However, England started confidently and within ten minutes Wayne Rooney’s goal drought ended when he prodded the ball over the line from close range after Glen Johnson had worked his way to the byline. In the excitement, Theo Walcott (in another moment that seems to somehow embody this England team) injured himself and had to be withdrawn but his replacement, Adam Johnson, might have been forgiven for being a little disappointed not to have started the match in the first place. Although Switzerland never fully fell from contention, England controlled the match effectively and had further half-chances before half-time. So far, so good.
In the first twenty minutes of the second half, however, some of the old insecurities started to return. As Switzerland started to push foward in search on an equaliser, the England defence started to look somewhat panicked and, although England continued to look more incisive in attack – Glen Johnson, for example, had one shot smartly pushed around the post by the Swiss goalkeeper Benaglio – the feeling started to grow that an equaliser was in the air, and this was helped along by some jittery goalkeeping from Joe Hart, who was starting to display some key symptoms of what we could come to know as England Goalkeeper Syndrome in dropping a couple of routine crosses and failing to effectively communicate with his defenders, but as the midway point in the second half loomed Switzerland effectively tossed the points England’s way.
After sixty-five minutes, Stephan Lichtsteiner had a rush of blood to the head, through himself somewhat overenthusiastically (and, it has to be said, not exactly timeously) into a challenge on James Milner and earned himself a red card for his troubles. Four minutes later, England doubled their lead when Johnson, who over the last few weeks has made himself impossible for Capello to ignore, followed route one, chased onto a flick on from Steven Gerrard, rounded Benaglio and slid the ball into the empty net. This being England, of course, the route to all three points was never going to be as simple as a 2-0 win with a goal in each half, and two minutes later Switzerland hauled themselves back into the game when Shaqiri cut in from the right hand side and drove the ball into the top corner from twenty-five yards, but the one man difference meant that Switzerland weren’t fully able to put the England defence under the sort of pressure that they probably should have been put under, and with two minutes to play Darren Bent latched onto a through-ball from Ashley Cole and seemed to catch Benaglio off-guard by driving the ball into the near post from something of an angle to put the result of the match beyond any significant doubt.
England, then, start their European Championship qualifying group with two wins, six points and seven goals. With a win in Sofia last night, it is already starting to feel as if Montenegro will be their biggest rivals for top place in the group and they can expect two tricky matches against them, and the internecine matches against Wales will, of course, be difficult and it seems unlikely that press coverage of these matches will be anything other than thoroughly depressing. For now, however, two comfortable wins from their opening matches will be probably be the top and bottom of Fabio Capello’s expectations. Perhaps the gulf in standards is as wide in international football now as it is in club football, with only a few super-powers that are capable of challenging for the major tournaments and the rest, clinging to their coat-tails. If this is a correct reading of the current condition of European football, England straddle the two – still, broadly speaking, better than the flotsam and jetsam but lacking the technical sophistication to compete with the very best. How to make that great leap forward remains the great unanswerable – the circle that Fabio Capello has to square. It seems likely that the last few days, even on the pitch, will only prove to be a respite from the madding crowd of hacks.