This match isn’t, as Gary Lineker insists twice, just for “you Americans and Algerians.” England’s struggles to date have turned this into a tight group where three teams need a win, so the natural choice for the neutral is surely the match with two of them. Such are the vagaries of the group that both sides are likely to still need the win right to the end, which could only help the entertainment value. They do. And it does. The BBC’s red button is very much the second team. We don’t get an on-screen clock until the 35th minute. Steve Bower is the newest commentator, and his inexperience isn’t, yet, offset by the throaty excitement he’s offered to moments of drama, mostly involving New Zealand, thus far. And co-commentator Martin Keown offers the considered perspective he showed every time Ruud Van Nistlerooy missed a penalty. And until today, every time a player does two things right in the same half, Keown tell us “Premiership managers will be looking at him” – even Nigerian keeper Victor Enyeama who, as Keown was gently reminded, played in the 2002 finals.
We have to wait until 2.56 for the red button coverage to begin, which means we get another volley of Brian Blessed shouting “Cry God for Fabio, England and St. George” with a truly American sense of irony. For a while, Bowers and Keown are admiring “Adu” in the States midfield. And Algeria’s lone striker Rafik Djebbour has bopped one against the crossbar before Maurice Edu comes on to shore things up. Djebbour was turned down by Celtic last season, which makes him, in some eyes, worse than Georgios Samaras. But when you’ve got a Watford centre-half marking you at the biggest international tournament there is, such things aren’t so important.
America gradually take control when they eschew the long-ball up to Jozy Altidore who, in his white shirt, is looking more like Emile Heskey with every heavy first touch. Keown thinks strike partner Herculez Gomez looks lost. Not alongside Altidore he doesn’t. The States, after the Slovenian debacle, soon have another goal chalked off, and again it’s a wrong decision. Clint Dempsey looks offside on the telly, and more significantly from the relevant bit of the sideline, but he’s level after receiving a mishit shot from Gomez.
Seconds earlier Gomez had blasted a drive at Algerian keeper Ouheb M’bohli, who certainly had been “all over the place” since the gormless Andy Townsend described him as such last Friday. But the places he’s been all over have been where the shots have landed. And he has a storming match. Long before half-time, it’s looking like “one of those days” for America, not least when M’bohli blocks a Landon Donovan effort and watches in awe as Altidore fires over the rebound by a distance which should be geometrically impossible. M’bohli makes more decent saves, Algeria are quick on the break and their shooting from distance is getting better, with Karim Matmour warming Tim Howard’s hands from a mile and a half out. And only Altidore and the linesman know how its still 0-0.
Martin Keown suggests former US president Bill Clinton “hasn’t got a clue what’s going on”, let alone how its 0-0. But this sweeping dismissal of Clinton’s intellect is based on one shot of Clinton looking into the camera just after Dempsey’s goal is disallowed. And Clinton looks more disappointed than clueless. And Clinton is, after all, chairman of the US 2018/2022 World Cup bid committee. And they don’t give those roles to career politicians with no previous experience in the g… ah.
The pattern remains entertainingly unchanged after the break, although Keown thinks “too many” Americans have been “going through the motions for a while now.” He says this eight minutes after half-time. Four minutes later Dempsey’s through again, only to hit the post. Fortunately, he’s first to the rebound, the goal’s gaping and…no… Only Altidore, the linesman and Dempsey know how its still 0-0. The substitutions help the States, not least the Algerians’ introduction of Abelkader Ghezzal, a graduate of a branch of the Mohamadou Idrissou School of flexible forward play – a branch you can only assume is now closed.Keown thinks “some of (the American) players are very good, others just aren’t up to it.” But with England only 1-0 up against Slovenia, America would be top of the group but for Dempsey’s disallowed goal.
Michael Bradley starts to look like the manager’s twin brother rather than his son after he plonks one header over the bar. And Algeria’s captain Anther Yahia goes down “injured” after one desperately minor collision, before being reminded that Algeria still need the win – a reminder that has Lazarus-like qualities. Next time around, Yahia – the captain, lest it be forgotten – elbows Dempsey in the face, drawing blood. The ref doesn’t see it, or he’d have ordered off…Dempsey to receive treatment. Yahia’s luck will soon run out.
The game will now either be the best 0-0 draw in World Cup history (beating France v. Uruguay, which was one of 2002’s better games), or will provide the mother, father and twin siblings of all dramatic finishes. It’s the latter. Group H may be the competition’s most Catholic group, with Spain, Chile and Honduras blessing themselves silly. But American players and fans alike are praying before one late Dempsey free-kick. The ball sails over. However, it’s just God moving in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.
Algeria’s Rafik Saifi (pronounced “Sci-Fi” by Bower) plants a sitter of a header into Howard’s ample stomach. And within seconds, Altidore is breaking with purpose and direction (God moving in a very mysterious way). He shoots. M’bohli, as per, saves. But Donovan appears from out of nowhere to get to the loose ball first by a fraction of a nanosecond, and, as the celestial Brian Moore says “its up for grabs now!” (one for the Arsenal fans, there), the former Everton man drills it home. Sensational.
England have won, 1-0, but there’s still time for an Algerian corner. The Belgian ref, with 1-0 to the US in the office sweepstake, blows for an innocuous, near-invisible foul. Hassan Yebda and Rafik Halliche are in the ref’s face, literally in the case of Halliche’s right-hand. But the ref turns away, and the first player he sees when he turns back is… Yahia, who gets the yellow card for Halliche’s indiscretion, which goes nicely with his other one. The caption informs us that he “misses next match.” But this is because the States will be playing in it. “Some of their players…just aren’t up to it,” but the Americans have won the group. The Algerians, who were better than feared, go home, as do the Slovenes, the “victims” of Donovan’s late winner. And if Keown stays on the proverbial “red button” for the rest of his life, I for one, won’t mind – the “mute” button is just above it on my remote. For the combination of drama and football, the best match yet.
Thanks once again go to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.