There are, broadly speaking, three types of tiredness which affect footballers. The first is the sheer exhaustion of having played over ninety minutes of football at a high tempo. The second is a feeling of being run down at the end of a long season – sitting in the dressing room ten minutes before kick-off thinking, “I could really do without this today”. The third is a gradual unwinding after coming out of the traps like a greyhound at the start of a match. The latter two of these are almost opposites, and both were on view this afternoon as England eventually overcame Kazakhstan in Almaty.
It’s difficult, in this day and age, to have too much sympathy for Premier League footballers, for whom the arduous lifestyle of flying all over Europe to play football is softened somewhat by the pillows full of money upon which they rest their heads at night. This match, however, was slightly different. Come the end of May the average footballer might expect a little rest, but the schedules have thrown the England squad a curveball – a seven thousand mile round trip to a country that borders China and (almost) Mongolia. This, coupled with the perennial England goalkeeping crisis and the fact that, well, England are plenty capable of losing to just about just about anyone made this a potentially tricky trip.
Twenty seconds in, and a repeat of San Marino in 1993 looked possible. Glen Johnson was caught in possession and a low cross into the penalty area brought that familiar England defensive chaos before the ball was scrambled to safety. For the next thirty minutes or so, England were wretched. The bumpy pitch and hostile crowd probably weren’t helping, but this was a performance as maladjusted as anything that Steve McLaren could manage. After seventeen minutes, it looked as if things had gone from bad to worse. Kukeyev’s free-kick from the right was headed in at the far post by Sergey Ostapenko, and the stadium erupted before it became clear that the linesman had flagged for offside. It was a late flag, but it was correctly called. England were hanging on by their fingernails.
This, however, turned out to be the high point of Kazakhstan’s endeavours for the evening. Emile Heskey had a shot turned onto the post, and then with five minutes left to play in the half, England took the lead. The home side failed to close down a short corner and Steven Gerrard crossed for Gareth Barry to head back across goal from a narrow angle and in. With the clock ticking over forty-five minutes came the tipping point of the match. Steven Gerrard wasn’t in a particularly dangerous position on the left wing and fifty yards out, but the goalkeeper Mokin probably shouldn’t have been as far from his line as he want. The replay confirmed a deflection, but the goalkeeper could only paw the ball into the path of Emile Heskey, who scored his first England goal since he scored against Denmark at the 2002 World Cup finals.
In the second half, England camped in the territory of their worn out hosts. The third goal demonstrated the two faces of Wayne Rooney. A cross from the right should have been an easy tap in but bounced off his thigh and brought a marvellous reaction save from Mokin. The rebound fell back to him, though and acrobatically volleyed the ball into the top corner. Five minutes later, Mokin saved decently again, but Emile Heskey was pulled back as he pulled his foot back to shoot on the rebound by Abdulin, and Frank Lampard scored from the penalty spot to wrap up a slightly flattering win.
There was more good news for England this evening as Croatia and Ukraine both dropped points from a 2-2 draw in Zagreb. Just over halfway through their qualifying group, England would have to make a monumental hash of things to not qualify from their current position. They still have to play Ukraine and Croatia, but wins in their next two matches against Andorra and Belarus would put matters beyond any doubt, even mathematical. We continue to watch through the fingers covering our eyes and there’s not a chance in hell of them of them winning the World Cup, but at least they should be taking part in it.