For all the panic and soul-searching, then, England have qualified for next year’s European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, although their performance last night was again patchy and hinted at a team that is likely to struggle against the very best in Europe next summer. Moreover, England’s night – which should, or might, otherwise have been an evening for celebration of some sort – was further soiled by the decision of Wayne Rooney to take a kick at Miodrag Dzudovic with just over fifteen minutes of the match left to play and get himself a red card and a suspension for the start of next summer’s tournament. As ever, England will go into a major tournament having created more questions than they have answered.
The build-up to match reflected the indifferent attitude that the English public seems to have held towards its national team for some time, now, with the most common reflection of the couple of days before the match seeming to fall somewhere between, “they’re interrupting the Premier League for a fortnight for this?” and “I didn’t even realise that they were playing on Friday night”. Such indifference might have been considered to giving the team something of a helping hand – when has the hype circus which seems to follow this team around at times actually been beneficial to them? – but when the chips descended, this was an England performance of a familiar vintage. A drop of complacency here, a splash of petulance there. And, at the end of the evening, that familiar – and peculiarly English – feeling of having spent a couple of hours watching a balloon slowly deflate.
It had all started positively enough, with first half goals from Ashley Young and Darren Bent giving them a comfortable lead with a little over half an hour of the match played. This was the sort of brisk, efficient performance that England are capable of when they put their minds to it. The most apocalyptic warnings about the future of the national team seem a little over-stated on the basis of the effervescence which Young, in particular, has instilled in his game over the last few months or so, and his goal after ten minutes only served to reinforce this perception. Darren Bent, meanwhile, remains a curious figure, simultaneously on the periphery of and at the heart of this squad. The second goal, effectively a tap-in from four yards out, was his fourth in five matches for England, yet he remains untrusted by many, and the question of whether he would be capable such a goals to games ratio against the teams that England might consider to be their contemporaries remains a valid one.
With the second goal, however, came a familiar decay. Is it really as simple as to merely state the most obvious likelihood, that with two early goals having given them something of a buffer, the team simply took their eyes off the ball and allowed Montenegro back into the match? In mitigation, there was an element of ill-fortune about the first Montenegrin goal, a shot Elsad Zverotic which deflected off Gary Cahill’s leg and wrong-footed goalkeeper Joe Hart in the process. For all of the element of luck about the actual goal, Montenegro certainly deserved it on the basis of their overall first half performance, and its timing was only likely to instil a familiar tetchiness into an England team which, for all of its presumed swagger, still occasionally seems plenty aware of its own shortcomings.
It was with Rooney’s red card that a stutter became a full-blown panic. We could attempt to interpret exactly what thought processes pass through his head at such moments, but it seems unlikely that there was much going on there at all. Dzudovic’s temerity in nicking the ball from his right foot was greeted by a kick to the calf which wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Sunday League park pitch, and the subsequent dismissal was as inevitable as it was dispiriting. It is not without merit to suggest that these occasional sparks of fury come from the same mental zone which give him the ability to be able to light up a match in the way that he (frequently, so far this season) can.
Fabio Capello will, this morning, likely be thanking his lucky stars that England were ahead at this stage in the match and that they only needed a single point to qualify for the finals from the match. With a one man advantage, Montenegro swarmed over England’s defence for the last quarter of an hour, and their equaliser, a header by Andrija Delibasic from a marvellous cross delivered by Dzudovic, for whom revenge was a dish served lukewarm, was no less than they deserved for their endeavours over the course of the evening. They will take their place in the play-offs and will provide formidable opposition for whoever they end up drawn against.
England, meanwhile, totter on to the finals of the European Championships with a team that is capable of tidy, economical football yet appears perpetually hamstrung by flashes of indiscipline and the feeling that, for all that they are venerated at home, too many of the players have a missing piece in their footballing jigsaws, whether technical or attitudinal. And meanwhile, Fabio Capello will continue to count down the clock to his departure from the job that is arguably world football’s greatest poisoned chalice. If Euro 2012 is to be England’s best chance of winning a major tournament, then this could well only be because it feels difficult to believe that the FA will make the right choice in choosing his successor, and this can hardly be considered a ringing endorsement of the current team or as a particularly optimistic prognosis for the future.
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