Roll up, roll up. It’s the biggest circus in town. This year, without a single ball having been kicked, hasn’t been a terribly successfully one for England so far. On the one hand, there were the varying discretions of members of the England team – John Terry offering his own special brand of comfort to Wayne Bridge’s recently separated former partner and Ashley Cole reportedly sending pictures of “Little Ashley” to some poor girl – which led to national hand-wringing in the press, followed by Ashley fracturing a bone (no, not that one) and Wayne deciding that he couldn’t bear to be in the same England team as John.
Meanwhile, old insecurities continue to haunt the team. Where is the international quality goalkeeper that they need if they are to get through the inevitable penalty shoot-out this summer? Who will replace Ashley and Wayne? Can the other Wayne last the end of the season without cracking a metatarsal or getting his head trapped in a letter box? The confidence that surrounded the end of the rounds of qualifying matches (which, in some corners of the press, considerably over-stepped the line into arrogance at the time of the draw for the finals in December) has already ebbed away.
Egypt could be forgiven for thinking that they are the home team at Wembley tonight. They have a large, noisy support taken from their diaspora in London, and one member of the England team is met with a cacophony of boos. The Egyptians barely need such benefits. They are a strong enough team in their own right – beaten in a play-off by Algeria for a place in the World Cup finals, they wrought revenge by thrashing the Algerians in the final of the African Cup Of Nations just over a month ago. They’re missing Mohammed Aboutrika – he is on the substitutes bench, recovering from an injury, this evening – but they have plenty of other fine players, such as Mohammed Zidan of Borussia Dortmund and Hossam Ghaly, who joined Al-Nassr of Saudi Arabia last year after a troubled three years at Tottenham Hotspur.
It takes approximately five seconds for the first boos to ring around Wembley, as Terry misplaces his first touch of the ball and sees it roll into touch. For ten minutes or so, though, England seem in control, but the worm begins to turn and Egypt start to assert themselves. Jermaine Defoe has to hack the ball off the line and, after in interlude during which Rooney feeds Defoe, whose shot is blocked by the Egyptian goalkeeper Al-Muhammadi, Egypt take the lead midway through the first half, and it’s partly the fault the fault of an English central defender. To the chagrin of a section of the crowd, though, it’s not John Terry – Matthew Upson slips and Mohammed Zidan belts the ball past a helpless Robert Green. Frank Lampard shoots into the turf and over, but England are huffing and puffing to very little effect. Half-time comes with Egypt leading and throughly deserving it.
Michael Carrick and Peter Crouch come on at half-time for Frank Lampard and Jermaine Defoe at half-time, and the difference is immediate. England look more fluid and Wayne Rooney, who spent much of the first half chasing shadows and turning puce, is starting to find his feet. Eleven minutes into a second half that already has a completely different timbre to that which has preceded it comes an equaliser. A sweeping move across the pitch ends with a low ball into the penalty area which Crouch, pulling a physical move that could accurately be described as “the broken shooting stick”, dangles a leg behind his body at an improbable angle and rolls the ball into the corner of the net.
Steven Gerrard is replaced by Wane Rooney when he is replaced by James Milner with seventeen minutes to play, and within three minutes England have the lead when Milner (for whom it occasionally feels that the words “hustle” and “bustle” were made onomatopoeic for) drives a shot in, the Egyptian goalkeeper El Hadari misjudges his block and pushes the ball straight back out to Shaun Wright-Philips, whose follow-up shot takes a slight deflection but should still have been dealt with by El Hadari, who gets a hand on the ball.
With the lead now taken, there is still time for a little more excitement, firstly when Crouch – a little offside, but not as much as those that claim that he was two or three yards on the wrong side of the law – touches in a third goal to finish off the evening. There’s even time for a game of “Guess The Look On John Terry’s Face” when Rooney is also withdrawn, but the captain’s armband evades him yet again. He has fallen quite a long way down the pecking order, has John Terry. Had the subsitutions started earlier, they may have wrapped the captain’s armband before giving it to him this evening.
Fo the chronically England-afflicted, this was a reasonable enough evening’s football. Although they were sluggish the first half (and forty-five minutes of football like the first half this evening in South Africa this summer will see them more severely punished than they were tonight), their second half performance, against stronger opposition than many will have given them credit for, was as accomplished as could be expected. From an individual point of view, Wayne Rooney was as effervescent as one might expect but otherwise it was the fringe players that probably took the most away from the match. James Milner demonstrated again that his pace and enthusiasm is enough to unsettle a team if he is thrown into a match, Robert Green, intriguingly, was given a full ninety minutes and acquitted himself with reasonable authority and Leighton Baines had an encouraging debut.
The main beneficiary of the evening, though, was Peter Crouch, who continues to defy any rational analysis of his physical appearance. Shunted in the direction of the substitutes bench at Tottenham Hotspur, he is still the 6’7″ tall man that is better on the ground than in the air. A walking – occasionally stumbling – paradox who makes watching the England football team a slightly less dispiriting experience than it might otherwise be, Crouch could yet make the most unlikely foil for Rooney in attack. Fabio Capello will have much to think about over the next few weeks and, for once, some it might have something to do with football.