Monday, June 28, 2010

The morning after the 44 years before

It was probably with relief, more than anything, that England fans reacted to the final whistle - and final nail in England's sorry World Cup 2010 coffin - as the gut-wrenching score was crystallised in memory and in history at 4:45pm on Sunday. Not quite payback for '66, though any bragging rights leftover from Munich in 2001 are well and truly handed back to the German supporters; expect the sea of scarves to bear this scoreline for now: Germany 4 - 1 England.

The result was as if finally and thankfully waking from a growing nightmare, rather than descending into one. The dream familiar to so many English fans (you know, that one where England win the World Cup?), preceded by weeks of feverish, optimistic expectation, faded almost instantly. If the insipid 1-1 draw against the US, where England, looking tired and short on ideas, battled gamely and little else, soured the first steps on what was supposed to have been a glorious path, the excruciatingly dire stalemate against an inferior-in-every-way Algeria demolished the path, and tore up the map.

This, incidentally, was the game where Gareth Barry, injured for the previous two months, was supposed to slot into the England puzzle and make the picture clear. Instead, Barry was ineffective in all three subsequent games, offering no protection to the back four against Germany (indeed, Barry was directly at fault during both of Germany's second half goals, giving away possession for 3-1 and failing to deal with a long punt to Mesut Ozil for 4-1), and in the games against Algeria and Slovenia, lacked any guile or passing flair - an asset Barry has always been short of.

The 'dream', now on the verge of dying, was burnished by the slightly more convincing first half display against Slovenia, Capello's two line up changes combining for the only goal. Yet as it turned into a fully fledged nightmare after all, like a Shakespearean tragedy there was a final, drawn out despondent end to the play, the inevitable descent into the sombre, damning ending.

Though Lampard's clear goal was academic by the end, there is something to be said that maybe, just maybe, an England side, pumped up and level 2-2 against the old enemy at half time at the World Cup, just might have had one last effort up their sleeves.

There is also something to be said that an England side, pumped up and harshly behind 2-1 to the old enemy at half-time at the World Cup, should have had even more of an effort up their sleeves than did emerge on Sunday.

Because apart from 15 frenzied minutes before half-time, England offered nothing against Germany to suggest that there was any more to this side than the three limp group games had shown. The failings of an England team, at the last opportunity for the heralded Golden Generation, were exposed against a young, exciting, clinical and organised German side.

Exposed, in every department. In goal, England's traditional problems since David Seaman retired continued: Green's woeful error was punished, but James, though competent when called upon in the must-win game against Slovenia, might have done better for the second and fourth German goals, and arguably should have reacted quicker to prevent their first, too. In defence, though their display against lowly Slovenia was also admirable, John Terry and Matthew Upson had no answer for Germany's attacking talent, whose prowess also left Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole hopelessly out of position on what seemed like countless occasions.

In midfield, Aaron Lennon struggled but was inexplicably replaced twice by unimpressive substitutes - Shaun Wright-Phillips has no doubt earned the last of his England caps, although Theo Walcott must be sunning himself somewhere, positively beaming - while Gareth Barry's lack of match practice showed alarmingly. Gerrard and Lampard, AGAIN, looked shadows of their club selves, and brought very little star quality into a midfield that consistently lacked energy, creativity and threat. James Milner showed glimpses of what may be a fruitful long-term England career, but Joe Cole's fleeting appearances were disappointingly ineffectual cameos.

Jermain Defoe looked lively against Slovenia and Germany and may just have done enough to earn a few more starting XI spots. Ignoring Emile Heskey, as Capello should have done from the start, that leaves Wayne Rooney.

Rooney looked like he played the tournament in a pair of bricks. His touch was barely there, his passing wayward and lacklustre, his goal threat non-existent. Something was wrong, whether it was the ball, an old injury, the long 50-game season spent single-handedly winning games for Manchester United or the pressure of similar expectations for his country. It would be hard to believe the pressure did get to him, given his consistency for club and country prior to the tournament, but one way or another, the magnificent and gifted footballer everyone knows just didn't show up.

Rooney will have another two, maybe three World Cups but by the end of 2010, the key quartet of Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard will all be the wrong side of 30. The England stars of tomorrow are few, far between and, where they do exist in players like Adam Johnson, Jack Wilshere, Jack Rodwell and Joe Hart, inexperienced. It's time for a shake up, and it may be some time before the dust settles on an England side capable of challenging at major tournaments.

For all the clear changes and difficult decisions needed, however, Capello cannot go just yet. He is, after all, responsible for galvanising this same squad who failed to even reach the Euro 2008 tournament, under Steve McLaren, to win nine out of ten World Cup qualifiers, and, with the right selections here on in, deserves the opportunity to lead England's Euro 2012 campaign. He has learned quicker than Sven, and will deal with better than McLaren, the massive media pressure that comes with heading the England national team, and with his undoubted pedigree and results delivered prior to this World Cup, should be given the chance to help English football turn this corner.

But right now, for those remaining talismen of England's Golden Generation, the greatest prize in world football will forever remain as tangible as the everyman's dream. It's a recurring dream that football players and football fans alike have had for 44 years, but on Sunday it was starkly and inescapably shown up for what it is. Now, a long-overdue wake up call is needed immediately to restore any faith in the future of English football.

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