If we suspend reality and assume the opinion that England playing Switzerland at Wembley this afternoon, just a few days after arguably their heaviest ever defeat in Zurich, was not mere serendipity at play, then somebody at UEFA is either unusually prescient or is the owner of the world’s only fully functioning crystal ball, as well as being the holder of a very keen sense of humour. If the nonsense in Zurich this week had any upside at all for football in England this week, it was that the politicking took the spotlight away from the team itself, meaning that their preparations for this afternoon’s match were put firmly in the shade. The England players could have been forgiven for believing that the plethora of cup finals and play-off matches over the last few weeks were the signal to the end of the season, but it is this weekend’s round of European Championship qualifiers that are the real signal for the end of the club season.
England, of course, haven’t improved since the World Cup finals. They shone, briefly, at the very end of the summer – including a solid win in Switzerland – but their performances against Montenegro, France and Ghana were, broadly speaking, turgid, and it feels as if this is the wrong match at the wrong time for the team. Wembley can be a claustrophobic place in the wrong circumstances, and a failure to win this afternoon would mean that Montenegro will go top of the qualifying group if they can win against Bulgaria this evening. Whilst encouragingly, it doesn’t take long for familiar insecurities and sloppiness to start to manifest themselves. John Terry’s wayward pass plays Jack Wilshere into trouble. He has the ball taken from him by Inler, whose deflected shot is only blocked by Joe Hart, who recovers to save from Derdiyok, even though the flag was already raised for offside.
Switzerland, though, are much the better team for long periods of the first half. Whilst England look every inch the forty or fifty matches that most of their players have managed this season, Switzerland look spritely and inventive. The chances keep coming for them. Shaqiri’s shot is beaten away by Hart, and with Ashley Cole injured there is plenty of space for the effervescent Swiss attack to exploit. When the goals come, though, they are all about individual losses of concentration in the England defence. Barnetta’s free-kick from the left-hand side is part cross, part shot, but it evades the head of Rio Ferdinand and squeezes in at the far post. Three minutes later, things go from bad to worse for England. Another free-kick on the left for Barnetta, this time from an even narrower angle, sees a weedy English wall part down the middle, and this time the ball squeezes in at the near post. Hart could have reacted more quickly, but perhaps the fault for this lies with James Milner, the half of the England wall through which the ball passed to get to the goal in the first place.
Within a minute, though, England are back in the game. Jack Wilshere surges forward with a run that threatens to take him all the way to the Swiss goal, but a desperate challenge from Djourou brings him down inside the penalty area. There’s no question about the decision, and Frank Lampard steps up to take the kick, and it’s a poor one, but it squeezes under the Swiss goalkeeper Benaglio and in. It’s a lifeline for England and they perk up with the goal. Half-time comes to an increasingly familiar chorus if boos – England have failed to win their previous three matches at Wembley – and with Fabio Capello having some serious head-scratching to do if he is to dig his team out of this hole. The move that he makes is a bold one – Ashley Young replaces Frank Lampard – and it yields instant results at the start of the second half. Within twenty seconds, Theo Walcott bursts through and is brought down on the edge of the penalty area, but the referee’s whistle doesn’t blow.
Six minutes into the second half, Young’s appearance is fully justified. Milner and Leighton Baines, two of the England players that covered themselves with the least distinction in the first half, combine to create the chance for Young, whose low, angled shot evades all the legs in the Swiss penalty area and Benaglio’s dive to bring England level. From here on, it feels as if England should go on to finish the game off, and it is perhaps concerning that they don’t. It’s not as if they don’t have the chances to do so. Wilshere plays Darren Bent through, but Benaglio smothers his shot. Ashley Young’s shot is parried by Benaglio and Bent, from six yards out, blazes the ball high over the crossbar. Switzerland, however, are still very much in this game and, in stoppage time, Emeghara cuts inside from the left and releases the ball to Mehmedi, whose shot whistles just wide of Hart’s post. Even then, though, England have one final chance to win the match. With practically the last kick before the referee puts his whistle to his mouth, John Terry flicks a long ball on and substitute Stuart Downing, from an angle but with the whites of Benaglio’s eyes firmly in his line of vision, shoots into the side-netting. A point each, then, from an untidy afternoon of football.
There will, of course, be hysteria surrounding England’s failure to win today. The daggers were frawn for Fabio Capello a long time ago, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the decision to leave Ashley Young out of the starting eleven was an error of judgement. He rectified the mistake at half-time, though, and England reaped a reward from this, of sorts. It is worth bearing in mind that to come from two goals down to salvage a draw against anybody is an achievement in its own right. In addition to this, Switzerland were very capable opposition who put in a confident, assertive performance of their own. There is no need for the English press to panic. Qualification is still in their hands, and it is likely that all will now hinge upon their final qualifying match in Montenegro. At this point, though, it seems likely that a fog of panic will descend over reporting of the England team in the next few days and weeks. With one step forward and two steps back from this afternoon’s performance, there are reasons to criticise this England team, but a sense of perspective may come to be one of the first casualties of the feeding frenzy that seems likely to be reignited.
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