Friendly internationals, we are told, are not about the result. They’re about the performance, and about preparing the team for competitive matches to come. What, then, are we to make of a match when more or less the only thing to come from a friendly match that can so much as remotely be regarded as positive is the result? What are we to make of a match in which even the result isn’t that positive and comes about thanks to a goal that wouldn’t have looked out of place in “The Keystone Kops Go Sokker”? Ultimately, to say that there are causes for concern over the prognosis for England’s World Cup qualifying campaign would be a massive understatement.
In the past, it was easy to identify where the problems came from with England. Now, there seem to be so many that it’s difficult to know where to start. Defensively, they still seem curiously afraid to commit to tackle when the ball is clearly in a dangerous area. At the front, the one genuinely world class player lacks a foil and fins himself having to run into deeper and deeper positions just to get a touch of the ball. At one point in the first half, Wayne Rooney won the ball and looked up for someone to pass to. He was, however, barely twenty-five yards from his own goal. There were seven players ahead of him but there was still no-one to pass the ball to. The biggest cause for concern, however, is the midfield. It is curiously one-paced, with precious little creativity and and a curiously disinterested look about them. Small wonder that Wayne Rooney ends up practically on his own goal line, desperate for a kick of the ball. It’s the best chance that he’ll get.
Even the goals didn’t inspire much confidence. The came as the result of an uncharacteristic lapse in concentration which allowed Wes Brown to sneak in and head them level just before half-time. The second came in injury time at the end of the match, with most of the people that hadn’t already left Wembley already starting to inhale in preparation of their first long, hard booing session of the season. It was eventually scuffed in by Joe Cole, whose appearance from the bench was the only other aspect of the evening that could be regarded as anything like a success. It was an appropriately disjointed end to a fairly shambolic evening, and Fabio Capello’s fist-clenched reaction was a fairly apt metaphor for The State Of Things. A last minute equaliser in a friendly match against The Czech Republic is getting on for being a cause for celebration.
It’s difficult to not be critical of Capello at this point. This generation of England players isn’t doing the job, and won’t be able to do the job in two years’ time. Now is the time to abandon Beckham, Gerrard, Ashley Cole and the rest of them. They’ve had their run, and they’re not up to the job. Capello needs to start fishing around the under-21 team and the Championship looking for players that at will at least be capable of improving. Things aren’t as bad as they were under Steve McClaren – one at least feels that the manager is in charge of team selection at the moment – but they haven’t improved enough. England should have enough to scrape their way past a very moderate Ukraine side and into second place in their group for a place in the play-offs in the World Cup finals, but look at this group: Croatia, Ukraine, England, Kazakhstan, Belarus & Andorra. Kazakhstan will and Belarus will surely never have a better chance to qualify for a World Cup finals than this, and Ukraine certainly won’t have seen anything to worry about last night.
We’ll know much more about England’s chances in a couple of week’s time. After what should be a routine win against Andorra, they have to travel to Zagreb to play Croatia. We all know what happened on the last two occasions that they played them. Croatia’s performance at Euro 2008 was hardly earth shattering, but they were still inhabiting a different footballing universe to poor old ragged England, and it’s not far short of impossible to see how they would get the three or four points from their two matches against Croatia that they will almost certainly need in order to qualify in top place. They may need to beat Ukraine in Kiev to secure that second place spot. The more you think about it, the more sobering the reality of England’s current predicament becomes.