Friday, June 18, 2010
Algeria stand tall as England wilt
There was a contrast on the field - one team punching above its weight, one well below - and there was a contrast in the stands at the final whistle. Minutes later, there was an even sharper contrast in the press conference room, in the questions directed at Rabah Sadane and Fabio Capello after England and Algeria drew 0-0.
• Steven Gerrard: No excuses
• Jolly: England were abject
The England coach went second; he walked in after a considerable delay but it didn't take too long for the questions to be fired. The second question asked referred to an observation he'd made soon after taking the England job - that he could not understand why England don't go farther in the World Cup.
"Does a performance like tonight's answer your own question?" Next, it was put to him that Graham Taylor, one of his predecessors, had hinted at problems in the England training camp. "Are there problems in the England training camp?" There was a long pause - almost ten seconds - before Capello said that was not the case.
Next question. "Do you now accept, Fabio, that England cannot win the World Cup?" That, too, was played with a straight bat away in a manner his cricket counterpart would appreciate.
It was the penultimate question, though, that asked the question uppermost on everyone's minds. "With all due respect, Mr Capello, if England do not qualify for the next round, have you thought of resigning?" This one was answered directly, though after another fairly dramatic pause and some consultation with his FA minders: "It's too early to speak about resigning. Too early for that." If ever a draw felt like a defeat, it was this.
Minutes before that Sadane had been treated with a deference usually reserved for Capello, in recognition of the heist he had just plotted. There were few questions asked on, for example, why his team had mustered just one shot on goal, and why, given that statistic, he had not brought on either of his specialist forwards and played the game with midfielders.
No matter - those questions were for another day. Today Algeria rode the punches, countered effectively and were far brighter on the ball than their more illustrious opponents. They played as a team, covering for each other. Everyone was a hero - Bougherra, Belhadj and Yahia in defence, Boudebouz, Ziani and Matmour farther up the pitch, Yebda everywhere. They strangled England with five across the middle and their speed and willingness to go forward - the latter must have caught England by surprise - unsettled their opponents.
All their dribbling and their ceaseless short-passing, however, came to nought because Algeria lacked a hit-man up front, someone who could put the clinical finishing touch to the enterprise. It's not a new problem - Algeria have now scored once in their past seven games and Sadane is obviously so disenchanted with his strikers that he benched the two eligible for this game and didn't bring them on even with the match up for grabs. He will not, you can be sure, appreciate the irony that arguably the two best current players of Algerian descent - Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri - found no place in a floundering French side. How he would have valued their experience on the biggest stages, their ability to take the game one level higher.
Given the cards at his disposal, though, few would argue with the tactic after this result. In the stands, the fans could scarcely believe what they were seeing - that Algeria were a match, often more than that, for England. Well before the final whistle their fans were setting off flares in anticipation of a memorable draw and when Ravshan Irmatov blew the long whistle cue delirium. The fans burst out in cheering - even threatening to drown out England's boo-boys - and the players responded by trudging across the pitch and applauding them. It was that kind of game, that kind of result.
They still have a shot at making the next round though it would need a minor miracle to happen. Sadane said he was already thinking ahead to next Wednesday's game against USA in Pretoria and, given the way he planned this result, one cannot dismiss those chances. It's unlikely, though, that they will find USA as obliging as England were on Friday.