Saturday, September 5, 2009 ESPNsoccernet: March 3, 7:43 AM UK
Defoe flourish will have Capello thinking hard
Is there a more in-form player in England than Jermain Defoe at present? That is the question that should be bouncing around inside Fabio Capello's head when he selects his side to face Croatia on Wednesday. Against Slovenia at Wembley, the Tottenham striker demonstrated just why his stock is at an all-time high and why he must start the game that could secure England's place at the World Cup finals.
Introduced at half-time in place of Emile Heskey, who had looked as close to scoring as he has in most of his England performances - another way of saying not at all - Defoe exhibited the confidence that is flowing through every sinew of his body when claiming his seventh goal in six games for club and country this season.
It is a most purple of patches from a striker deemed not good enough to take to the last World Cup by Sven Goran Eriksson.
We know Capello favours a physically imposing striker as his lone target man - with Heskey, Peter Crouch and Carlton Cole all options - but Arsenal have replaced Emmanuel Adebayor with Robin van Persie to good effect this season and perhaps a similar shift will occur in Capello's thinking when Croatia visit London.
As the old saying goes, size isn't everything. Defoe's cute exchange of passes with Aaron Lennon and confident finish on 63 minutes demonstrated he certainly has the stature to trouble Slaven Bilic's side.
Indeed, this was a day for the substitutes as Tottenham team-mate Lennon made a much more lasting impact than Shaun Wright-Phillips, whom he replaced, and after teeing up Defoe for the second goal he also embarked on a sizzling run after 70 minutes to lay the ball on a plate for Rooney. Curiously, the Manchester United striker somehow failed to convert from close range.
Rooney, as ever, was the central figure throughout the game and with David Beckham sat on the bench and denied another cap for his collection, it was the current darling of Old Trafford who drew the loudest cheer from the 67,232 England fans in attendance.
However, he had the Slovenia support producing howls of derision when winning a hugely controversial penalty after half an hour.
On first view it appeared that Rooney had taken only two days to undermine his very public declaration that he was not a diver, but replays soon established that this was no act of simulation, more a shocking decision from referee Jonas Eriksson.
Rooney appeared to have a firm hold of Bostjan Cesar's shirt, pulling the defender to ground. To add injury to insult, the striker's right boot connected with the defender's foot, resulting in a nasty ankle blow that resulted in the former West Brom man being substituted.
The Manchester United striker appealed for it, and it would have made an interesting case study to see how UEFA had reacted to the incident had the game been under their control, rather than FIFA's. The governing body's rule, invoked in the Eduardo case, states that a player can be punished for having "the obvious intent to cause any match official to make an incorrect decision or supporting his error of judgement".
By appealing, and then allowing the penalty to be awarded when surely knowing it was never a foul, Rooney arguably did both.
Such is the can of worms that UEFA has now opened.
But that contentious moment aside, Rooney was once again England's most dynamic force, even if he was not quite at his electric best. His position behind Heskey allowed him to dictate play and be highly influential. Having desired for so long to have a central role, both tactically and metaphorically, for club and country, the mercurial Merseysider is flourishing in Fabio Capello's formation.
He could even just about be forgiven a horrendous miss on 35 minutes when crashing the ball against the bar from only four yards out, with a close range effort on 70 minutes, which was cleared off the line, no easier on the eye.
John Terry also headed against the woodwork in the first half, following up that effort with an ambitious overhead kick when the ball bounced back out to him, and England grew increasingly fluent as the chances begun to flow in front of an appreciative Wembley crowd. But goals have never been a problem for Capello's England, not since that heady night at the Maksimir just 12 months ago when Theo Walcott razed Croatia's fortress to the ground with a remarkable hat-trick.
No, this England side is more than capable of scoring. Instead it is defensive concerns that persist, despite the leadership of a head coach from the country that gave us catenaccio. They had kept only three clean sheets in ten games prior to kick-off and a shaky first 20 minutes at Wembley was cause for concern, particularly in the wake of an error-strewn performance in Holland in their last outing.
Mistakes could be attributed to rustiness on that occasion given the season was still at an embryonic stage, but the way in which England's backline was carved open on a number of occasions by Slovenia - a team situated below Burkina Faso in FIFA's world rankings - was worrying indeed for Capello.
Glen Johnson appeared exposed on occasions, and certainly for the goal, while Robert Green never really overcame a shaky start.
The West Ham keeper somehow escaped punishment despite handling the ball outside the box and almost gave away a penalty when rushing out to just nick the ball away from Milivoje Novakovic, before looking deeply unconvincing when Slovenia scored late on through Zlatan Ljubijankic.
But the day belonged to Defoe, Rooney and Lennon. The value of international friendlies has been debated time and time again, but neither Tottenham star will consider this particular fixture a waste of time should Capello deservedly call both players into his starting line-up on Wednesday. If England keep defending the way they have done in their last two games, he may need their dynamism up front.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Ashley Cole was the official choice and enjoyed one of his better games for his country, but in terms of overall influence, and despite two shocking misses and a very generous penalty award, Rooney takes some beating.
ENGLAND VERDICT: No problems in attack when you consider they hit the woodwork twice in the first half and John Terry even tried an overhead kick. Problems persist in defence though, with Capello surely still debating his first-choice keeper and right-back as he plans for the finals in South Africa.
BOO BOYS: England have seemingly repaired their relationship with their supporters under Capello but the Wembley crowd can still be unforgiving. Joleon Lescott bizarrely appeared to get booed when coming on as a substitute and news of Cole's man of the match award was met with a similar response by some sections.