Diddums. Bless them. Apparently, the England team are starting to get a bit of a chip on their shoulders over playing at Wembley. They don’t much like the fact that they get booed there when they play there. It’s not fair. Why don’t we all love them unconditionally? After all, they go to all the trouble of turning up to play. The least we should do is cheer everything good that they do and pretend that the appalling quality of their passing isn’t their fault. Even the one-eyed ITV commentary team couldn’t successfully paper over the cracks. It took a little over forty minutes for the goodwill won back by their performance in by their excellent performance in Zagreb last month. After a brief respite, it was a return to type, as England turned their depressingly regular twin tricks of making the pitch seem smaller and more cramped than it actually was, and making deeply average opposition look considerably better than they actually were.
It wasn’t, this evening, merely about Ashley Cole, although he bore the brunt of the Wembley crowd’s ire for the ridiculously misplaced pass that gifted Kazakhstan a thoroughly deserved route back into the game. It was about Steven Gerrard, who passed the ball straight to the opposition at least four times within the first fifteen minutes of the game. It was about Emile Heskey, who reverted to type insofar as that he spent the majority of the evening resembling one of the statues at Easter island. It was about Frank Lampard, who does a very good line in clapping and looking earnest, but doesn’t seem to offer a great deal else to the cause. It was about David James, who seems to have based his goalkeeping style on the mannerisms of someone holding a hot jacket potato with their bare hands. Had they played a better, fitter team, they wouldn’t found themselves in a position to flatter themselves so much with a late flurry of goals. Ultimately, though, a fairer relfection upon proceedings would have been a 2-1 win, thanks to England goals that came about thanks to some poor goalkeeping from a set piece and an own goal.
The tone for the evening was set within five minutes of kick-off. Theo Walcott crossed into the six yard area and Emile Heskey tried to bundle the ball over the line three yards out with, in order, his feet, his arse, and then his shoulder. A couple of minutes later, Frank Lampard tried to lift a free-kick into the Kazakh penalty area, but hit it straight to a surprised (and somewhat grateful) defender. It was downhill from there on. At the other end, David James and Matthew Upson got their knickers in a twist over a comparatively routine clearance before James, whose reactions seemed to indicate that he had only been awake for about fifteen minutes, scrambled the ball clear with Rulsan Baltiyev bearing down upon him. At the other end, Lampard shot just wide and Walcott shot just over, but these were largely speculative and you could see the confidence visibly draining from the players as the clock ticked away. Yet again, the decision to play Lampard and Gerrard at the same time was having a tangible effect on England’s formation, narrowing it to two or three channels that were predictable and rigid that Kazakhstan had little to worry about for the rest of the half. Half-time. Goalless. A smattering of boos pierced the air.
Shaun Wright-Phillips replaced Gareth Barry for the start of the second half, but things got worse before they improved. Barely a couple of minutes into the second half, England fail to clear and Tanat Nusserbayev shoots over from five yards out when he really should have scored. The England goal, when it finally arrived, was largely dependent on a slice of good fortune. Frank Lampard finally delivered a corner worthy of the name, and the Kazakh goalkeeper Mokin made a calamitous decision to come for a ball that he had no chance of getting, allowing Rio Ferdinand to head into an empty net. The sense of relief last barely two minutes, before Nusserbayev’s shot was fumbled by James, who was fortunate to see the ball go wide. Then, Wes Brown appeared to trip Nusserbayev as he went through, but the striker didn’t take a dive and nothing was given. England’s second goal was more fortunate than their first. Lampard’s free-kick was aimed for Rooney, but Alexandr Kuchma got there first and flicked the ball past Mokin to make it 2-0.
Four minutes later, the tension rises again. Quicker than you can shout, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Cole! Can’t you stop fucking thinking about Baby Bentleys and ridiculous jewellery for one minute and concentrate on what you’re paid to do?” at the television set, the Chelsea defender’s woeful pass across goal was picked up by Zhambyl Kukeyev, who slid the ball past David James. On the basis of the first twenty minutes of the second half, it seemed more likely that Kazakhstan would draw level than that England would extend their lead, but the visitors started to tire, and England ruthlessly took advantage. Wayne Rooney headed them into a 3-1 lead, and then added a fourth from close range. It looked as if Rooney would go on to get a hat-trick, but he was hastily replaced by Jermaine Defoe, who added a deceptively unflattering fifth with a couple of minutes to play.
It has been a strangely satisfactory evening for England. It may have been in question for seventy-odd minutes, but the final result was what would have been anticipated before the match. The other result in the group elsewhere, as Ukraine and Croatia played out a 0-0 draw. This result leaves England clear at the top of the group with three of their ten matches played. They’re two points ahead of Ukraine, and five better off than Croatia, and with a vastly superior goal difference. There was, however, enough on display this evening to warn against complacency. They still have to go to Kiev and play Croatia at Wembley and, in all honesty, the likelihood is that they will have to play consideraby better in Minsk on Wednesday night, should they wish to beat Belarus. The road to South Africa is likely to remain a rocky one for England yet.