Young Lions end Sweden hoodoo
It was a night of records at Wembley. A crowd of 48,876, the stadium's lowest attendance figure in its new form, witnessed England secure their first win over Sweden since 1968, thanks to the Three Lions' 2,000th goal.
After becoming 'world-beaters' at the weekend by defeating Spain 1-0, England rewarded the fans that made the trip to North West London with another pinch of optimism, in a game that initially encouraged but ultimately coasted in its latter stages. That entertainment was scant in the second half will unlikely matter a jot to manager Fabio Capello, for this international break has been a success for the Italian and his side: no goals conceded, two victories accrued and promising talent blooded.
There was encouragement for England during the first 45 minutes. A line-up that included eight changes was bright, sharp and eager. Sweden struggled to get hold of the ball - quite the turnaround from what was a sobering weekend for the English - even if initially the majority of their opponents' play was in front of them. Within the home nation's side was pace, and oodles of it, particularly down the right flank. Indeed, the jet-heeled Kyle Walker and Theo Walcott combined to trouble the Swedes, both zipping forward and delivering crosses almost at will. It was no surprise that England's first chance of note came via Walcott, as he combined with lone striker Bobby Zamora, only for the Fulham man to see the side-netting ripple.
England's energy in the centre was the reason that the widemen were allowed to thrive. Jack Rodwell played alongside Phil Jones at the base of their midfield, while Gareth Barry - who, oddly, sported the No. 10 jersey - played behind Zamora in an advanced role. Certainly there was some head-scratching at seeing Barry spearhead the two youngsters, the midfielder who is usually the sitter for both club and country and often criticised for his tractor-like speed. Yet, almost inevitably, it was the Manchester City player that played a part in the opener, as his header from a Stewart Downing cross caught Daniel Majstorovic to drop home in the 23rd minute. England deserved their breakthrough.
Sweden's threat came via corners - dead balls, ironically, being England's only weapon of choice against Spain - as Rasmus Elm's set-piece delivery once forced Joe Hart to tip away from underneath his crossbar. The Three Lions overcame that brief anxiety, even if a butter-fingers moment from Hart drew a gasp from the supporters.
Those fans were soon on their feet, as Jones, like a steam train, embarked on a lung-busting run in on goal. The 19-year-old was, though, denied a moment to savour as he ran out of puff at the last, his toed finish bobbling wide of the far post. Jones has the ingredients, but there is still, understandably, a rawness to his game. A wayward pass on the halfway line and then a sloppy foul of the edge of the box were evidence of that, while it is still up for debate as to whether his failure to play regularly in one position is to his benefit.
Rodwell, who at least regularly plays in midfield for his club Everton, made his first senior start for England, sitting competently alongside Jones. He was a little easier on the eye in possession, a little tidier with his feet. The pair's differences, however, were a positive - no Lampard-Gerrard conundrum there. Rodwell was unlucky not to have his name on the scoresheet before being replaced early in the second half, for he saw a volley deflect just wide and a header clip the outside of the post.
Sturridge, pined after by so many to be given the chance on the international stage, then became the latest Englishmen to make his debut, entering the fray for the impressive Walcott. Sturridge's entrance swiftly yielded expected flair, his over-the-top step-overs nearly earning a penalty.
In a game where England appeared to have had several chances, the first shot on target only reared its head on 66 minutes as Downing skipped on but was then denied by Andreas Isaksson. That statistic was indeed misleading. England had a focal point, in the shape of Zamora, and he led the line well. Forward balls stuck with him, allowing others to be rolled into play.
The performance, frustratingly for Zamora, just lacked a goal; always the barometer for strikers. It was indeed a big evening for the Fulham forward, with a date of December 9 announced for the appeal of Wayne Rooney's three-match suspension and Danny Welbeck missing out through injury. No harm was done to his quest of securing a boarding pass on the plane to Ukraine and Poland, but there are still air miles to earn.
Those fans remaining come the final whistle were pleased enough, as was Capello. He was content in his press conference, keen to highlight the performances of his youngsters. The Italian remarked: "During these games I am looking for something new. And I found that."
Indeed, the new-boys' vigour took the spotlight off captain John Terry. This quiet evening, threatened by only a few boos, was just the tonic for Terry and his manager. The focus is now where Capello desires it. After these two friendly games, it is on the players pushing for places; the way it should be. With the passage to Euro 2012 already secure, the journey itself now takes centre stage.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Stewart Downing: Often a victim of criticism, Downing put in the type of efficient display that encouraged Liverpool to part with £20 million for his services. The winger was comfortable on both flanks, providing the assist for the game's decisive goal. One would imagine he is a shoo-in to be in the squad for next summer's tournament, the midfielder trusted to carry out his instructions. Walker, too, deserves a mention, the Tottenham right-back excellent both in defence and attack. With Micah Richards seemingly out of the frame, Walker will provide healthy competition for Glen Johnson.
ENGLAND VERDICT: Job done. Two wins from as many games and players trialled that needed trialling. Those youngsters received much praise from Capello in his presser, with Rodwell, Jones and Walcott top of the Italian's list for plaudits. He said: "For me it was really important to see, Jones, Walcott, Rodwell. The answer that I received from their performances was positive. I thought they played really well against a team like Sweden. Jones played well in front of the back four. Rodwell played well too. These three players are really good technically and physically. They are fast. And that is important." The curse of playing at Wembley, albeit a near half-empty one, appears to be wearing off, too. Capello adding: "I have seen the players play with less fear at Wembley."
SWEDEN VERDICT: All eyes were on the pony-tailed Zlatan Ibrahimovic, alas the AC Milan star lasted just 45 minutes before being replaced. His ineffective outing was a shame, as he is capable of the extraordinary. In truth, he looked rather disinterested. Their head coach Erik Hamren, meanwhile, was a little flat after the game, after seeing last week's 2-0 loss to Denmark followed by a tepid display against a much-changed England. He said: "They created more chances than us. We have learned a lot. England are a strong team, they have strong teams. They work hard for each other. They are difficult to create chances against."