A bullet dodged and a banana skin avoided, then. England took a big step towards qualifying for the finals of the 2010 World Cup last night, but their performance raised as many questions as it answered, and Ukraine will fly home feeling a little hard done by at a final score that didn’t fully reflect their contribution towards proceedings. England, not a team to do anything the easy way where the hard way is an available as an option, made very hard work of winning this match, and the manner in which their shape started to slowly crumble as the second half substitutions took place asks serious questions of the strength in depth of the squad. Also, the temperament of Wayne Rooney is back under the spotlight after a series of reckless tackles, any of which might have earnt him a red card on a different day and under a different referee.
On Saturday, observers wouldn’t have learnt much from a 4-0 win against a lethargic looking Slovakia team apart from that the new England kit looks strangely not quite right on a football team – depending on the angle being used by the cameras they variously looked like tennis players or a cricket team, but seldom like a football team – and that their lack of strength in depth remains a handicap. Peter Crouch had been called into the starting eleven after injuries to Emile Heskey and Darren Bent, and that he scored the first goal of the match lent credence to the perception that Fabio Capello is a “lucky” manager. Capello will, however, be concerned at England’s second half performance, which failed to press home their half time advantage and allowed Ukraine a soft equaliser before a late goal from John Terry secured them all three points.
Crouch’s goal came at the end of thirty minutes of toil without much end product. Steven Gerrard had fired a free kick just wide and Wayne Rooney had, somewhat optimistically, attempted an overhead kick from the edge of the penalty area that dropped just over but, by and large, the signs were already present and correct that this was going to be something of an off night. Passes were going astray, possession was being given away cheaply and as time wore on one started to suspect that the Ukrainians had adjusted much better to their surroundings that many short sighted commentators had suggested they would. The goal, when it came, was from a set piece. Terry’s header at the far post found Ukraine leaving three men on the goal line and no-one marking Peter Crouch, who somehow managed to arrange his extraordinary limbs into the right shape to drive the ball into the roof of the goal.
David Beckham’s replacement of Aaron Lennon at half-time created a frisson of excitement around the stadium. The crowd had been told enough times that they were watching a moment of history, and this seemed to cloud the small matter that their performance was starting to fall to pieces. Without Lennon the midfield lacked any significant pace and the shape of the team also looked less balanced with Beckham playing nominally on the right. With sixteen minutes to play, the equaliser came. A free kick from the right should have been a routine for the four England defenders lined up on the edge of the six yard area, but none of them took responsibility for the clearance, the ball bounced off Glen Johnson and Andriy Shevchenko pounced to bring Ukraine level.
All of the old concerns were becoming more and more evident. At the front, Wayne Rooney – possibly out of frustration at his lack of involvement, possibly because he occasionally gives the impression of being a borderline psychopath – was flying in with riskier and riskier tackles and was lucky to stay on the pitch on two separate occasions. The five point cushion that England had going into the match was starting to look somewhat more fragile than one might have expected. With five minutes to play, however, Capello played another get out of jail free card. Beckham’s deep free kick was nodded across by Steven Gerrard and John Terry turned the ball over the line for the winning goal.
Some say that great teams win matches when they’re not playing well, but it would be a pretty massive leap of the imagination to imagine that this England team is anything other than, depending on Fabio Capello’s skills as an alchemist, either a work in progress or playing as well as they can and grinding out the results. Wins in their next two matches against Kazakhstan and Andorra would leave them realistically needing just one win from their last three matches against Croatia, Belarus and Ukraine in order to qualify. On the evidence of last night – England would still struggle against better opposition – Terry’s goal might prove to be a very, very important one. The two extra points that they bagged for Fabio Capello alleviate any annoyance at a sub par performance, but he more than anybody else will aware that they still need to improve.