England 2-0 Trinidad & Tobago
Well, they made hard work of it, again. For over eighty minutes, it looked as if the wheels had well and truly fallen off Sven’s wagon. England couldn’t blame the weather this time, and they couldn’t blame the referee. They couldn’t even argue that they scored early and decided to sit back and defend their lead. They toiled and struggled against a Trinidad team that had a fairly simple game-plan: defend frantically, try and break away of possible, and occasionally kick them. It nearly paid off. After Saturday, the stakes had risen. Winning wasn’t enough any more. England had to win well. There was no question of them taking Trinidad too seriously – but the question remains: if they are unable to break down a well-organised team of lower-division journey men, how on earth are they going to cope with the likes of Brazil or Argentina. At present, I think we all know the answer to that. Still, for all that, they’re through to the second round with a match to spare, and it’s the best start to a World Cup for England since 1982. I guess we should be grateful for small mercies.
For the first fifteen minutes or so, it seemed comfortable enough. They kept possession, pinged a few dangerous balls into the Trinidad penalty area, and looked confident. But then, slowly but surely, the best laid plans of mice and Sven started to fall apart. Firstly, they were let down by poor finishing. Crouch forced a good save out of Hislop at the near post, and the goalkeeper also spilled a long shot from Frank Lampard – fortunately for Trinidad, it fell to Owen, who get the ball bounce of his shins and wide. It was the gangly loon Peter Crouch who seemed destined to be the villain of the piece. Just before half-time, a cross from the right fell to him six yards. Now – consider this question: it’s five minutes from half-time in the most important match of your life, and the ball falls to you six yards from goal with just the goalkeeper to beat. Do you: a) Get the ball under control and calmly put the ball into the corner of the net? Or do you: b) Flap at the ball like a drunken daddy-long-legs and send the ball hurtling towards the corner flag? The answer is at the top of the page. There was still time for England to be given their biggest scare of the match. Robinson mis-judged a cross and Stern John headed goalwards. Only an acrobatic goal-line clearance from John Terry (the only England player that can, at present, take any pride in his performances) kept the scores level.
Ten minutes into the second-half, the inevitable happened – along with another Sven Surprise. Rooney on for Owen, and Lennon on for Carragher. It was Lennon that made the difference. The change of formation unsettled Trinidad, as did Lennon’s pace on the right. His crossing clearly needs work, but it might just be that 3-5-2, with Beckham squeezed into the middle, could prove to be England’s salvation. For today, we had to make do with salvation of sorts from Crouch, who headed home with seven minutes left. In the last minutes, Gerrard fired home a great twenty-yard shot which, after the FA Cup final, must have been giving Shaka Hislop a horrible sense of deja vu. In the scrappiest way possible, job done.
I really don’t know what to make of this lot. I’m really at a loss. What I know is that they have a unique ability to lower themselves to the level of whomever they’re playing, but still grind out a result (2-0 vs Liechenstein, 1-0 vs Macedonia). They’re also capable of occasionally throwing up the occasional great performance (5-1 vs Germany, 3-2 vs Argentina), and they must be doing something right, because they’ve now won eight in a row. Having said, though, they were so devoid of ideas and formation this evening, that you start to think, “well, how are they going to raise their game?”. The key might, after all, lie with Rooney. Although he didn’t really get into the match today, he remains a talismanic figure for the supporters and, increasingly, the other players. Lennon’s introduction showed that it doesn’t have to be this bad. Events elsewhere this evening, though (of which more later), mean that they cannot now afford to lose against Sweden. The German achievement in beating Poland and Costa Rica has been vastly over-stated, but you’d still rather play Ecuador in the second round, wouldn’t you?