I think it’s fair to say that the introduction’s already on site, so I’ll just go straight into the game. England line up as a 4-4-2, with Gerrard on the left and Milner on the right, and Defoe partnering Rooney up front. As with last night’s Nigeria-South Korea report, I’ll include how the group stands, and any changes.
1. Slovenia 2. USA 3. England 4. Algeria
The start is slow – as it usually is at England games. Glen Johnson lunges in on Andraz Kirm, and referee Wolfgang Stark (seen as a controversial choice considering one of the teams may face Germany over the weekend) is lenient. Gerrard has already cut inside. Valter Birsa has his first run at Ashley Cole, cuts inside and fires at tame shot at David James. There’s a warning sign that this will not be as defensive as Friday night. Gareth Barry steams in from behind on Aleksander Radosavljevic. Most referees would have booked him, but Stark is surprisingly lenient. Johnson hits a diagonal ball to Rooney on the left, and he crosses to Gerrard at the far post, but Bojan Jokic heads it for a corner. Gerrard’s corner is deep, and there’s no England shirt to meet it. Lampard tries a long swerving free kick, around 35 yards from goal, but the wall is at least fifteen yards away, but Samir Handanovic holds it firm. On 17 minutes, Gerrard puts in a great ball from the left, which is headed clear to Upson, who gives the ball to Rooney. Rooney has attention, with Milner screaming for the ball, in acres of space on the right. Rooney instead takes on his men and wins a corner. The corner is flicked across the goal by Terry, and although no-one else gets a touch, Stark surprisingly awards another corner. The corner bounces threateningly, but no-one gets on the end of it. Johnson has a speculative shot, and Handanovic gathers well again. Slovenia then get their best chance. Cole stretches but gifts the ball to Lubijankic, Terry clears for a corner. The corner from Birsa is cleared to Millvoje Novakovic, whose shot is flicked by Bostjan Cesar, but James saves. On 22 we get a goal. Milner puts in a sublime cross, that Jermaine Defoe cannot miss. He’s 5five yards from goal and although Handanovic tries to parry. But it’s too close. 1-0
1. England 2. Slovenia 3. USA 4. Algeria
This is the best England have played since qualifying. Another Milner cross causes problems, but Handanovic blocks the ball before Defoe can double the lead. The rebound goes to Lampard, whose follow-up is well over the bar. A Johnson cross is missed by the entire defence, and hits Gerrard, who cannot have expected the ball to have eluded everybody. Gerrard provides Defoe with another opportunity, but the defenders block. The ball goes to Gerrard, who heads to Rooney, who plays a sensible ball back to Gerrard, whose shot is blocked by Handanovic. The ball spins towards the line, but the keeper recovers before Gerrard can pounce. There is more communication by the England players – when Gerrard drifts inside, Rooney is dropping back to cover. Cole concedes a free kick on Brecko, and Slovenia have their first meaningful attack since the goal. Birsa’s cross is poor, and Cole clears. Milner shows Birsa the way to do it, but Rooney is beaten at the far post. There are a coupleof half openings created, but after the tempo of the last twenty minutes, both sides are keen to slow the pace down. Bojan Jokic gets his name in the book for a foul on Glen Johnson, and considering some of the previously unpunished England challenges, he’s rightly aggrieved. He misses the second round, should Slovenia qualify. A Birsa freekick is deflected into the path of Novakovic, but James beats him, with the assistant flagging for offside. Cesar challenges Defoe in the air, and sends him sprawling for an elbow, but fortunately for Cesar it’s the blind side of the referee. It’s the last real action, as as things stand, both sides will progress.
Jokic concedes a needless corner from the restart, and Handanovic tries to stop the corner, but fails. The corner is taken while the keeper is coming back, and Lampard’s shot is just diverted wide by Defoe. Milner and Johnson combine down the right hand side, and Johnson goes down under pressure. The replays show his knee almost hit the ground before the elbow makes contact, and the booking for diving is about right, no matter what the BBC team say. He’s lucky to still be on the pitch after some of his first half challenges. Another neat build up sees Lampard provide Rooney, but he’s marginally offside, and the assistant’s call is good, and the resulting goal from Defoe is ruled out. A push from Terry sees the BBC team suggest that he has “balance issues”, and the free kick comes to nothing, but an England breakaway. Rooney takes the ball upfield, but losing out while waiting for support. Gerrard then dispossesses Brecko, and he exchanges passes with Rooney, but he can’t capitalise. Milner puts in another great cross, but the defence clears for a corner, that Terry almost converts, but Handanovic makes another strong save. On 57 minutes come England’s best chance since the goal. A Lampard through ball finds Rooney time his run and beat the offside trap, but Handanovic tips the shot onto the post. England turn up the tempo again. Ashley Cole almost works out a chance, and Rooney tests the keeper again from distance. A Milner run produces a little trip from Jokic, who has already been booked, but referee Stark is consistently lenient. England’s most threatening corner sees Handanovic pluck the pall in the air just ahead of an unmarked Gareth Barry. Birsa fires a low shot that looks to take an odd bounce, but James is equal to it.
Barry gives the ball away to Birsa, who charges from the right flank, down to the centre, passes between him, Novakovic and Kirm provides a chance for Dedic, whose chance is blocked, and goes to Novakovic, whose clearance is a sea-level header, and Birsa’s eventual shot goes the wrong side of the post. It’s a reminder that for all England’s possession and chances, it’s not a one team game. Birsa fires another shot high and wide, and Slovenia are threatening. Rooney, who has been limping, makes way for Joe Cole, who occupies the position behind Defoe, rather than the expected move to the left.
The substitution breaks the game up, and the level drops significantly. The only other thing of note in the 10 minutes after Rooney departs is the booking of Birsa for kicking the ball away, and Dedic for a foul. With Defoe the main outlet, Milner’s crosses are generally landing on the heads of Marko Suler and Cesar, and this sees the introduction of Emile Heskey for Defoe. Heskey nods on a clearance to Gerrard, who in turn supplies Joe Cole, but the shot is both unnecessary and high. A Glen Johnson foul on the touchline is worse than the one Dedic was booked for, but fortunately, he doesn’t receive a second yellow. Capello urges the defence to push up, as the group is still poised on a knife edge. Matas and Dedic come close in the second of two goalmouth melee’s but Matthew Upson with a fine challenge clears the danger. Time added on sees a tired looking Joe Cole and man of the match Milner spend most of the time near the corner flag retaining possession. It’s desperate, but Slovenia have shown too much up front to ignore the threat, and the game is up. The result is enough, as England qualify, the performance is a good one, but more importantly it was a disciplined one. Gerrard put in a captain’s performance on the left, and when he did leave his position, there was cover, mainly Rooney dropping back. Wolfgang Stark blows the final whistle, and England qualify, but it’s heartbreak for Slovenia, as a the United States score an injury time winner to top the group. The group ends up:
1. USA 2. England 3 Slovenia 4. Algeria
Thanks once again go to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.