Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Don Fabio back in control
Jayaditya Gupta, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium
When the final whistle came the cheer was one of relief more than exultation. All the drama was at Ellis Park - in Port Elizabeth the end was almost anti-climactic because this was a result that was on the cards even before Jermain Defoe formally sealed it in the 23rd minute. As the Slovenians slumped on being told the news from Pretoria, England's players celebrated as though they'd got a lease of life.
• Slovenia 0-1 England
• Capello: No more fear factor
• Jolly: Progress for England
• Photo Gallery
Afterwards Fabio Capello was as straight-faced as you could expect. "Vindicated? Why? This is the team I know and this is how they play", he said in response to the first question at the post-match press conference, an event that was transformed from an inquisition to a merely gentle interaction by that one goal and what it signified.
The mood was considerably lighter from Cape Town last Friday - the greater concern was shown for Wayne Rooney's ankle, which should be fine for Sunday - than problems in the training camp. And no one was asking whether he would quit if England didn't qualify. Don Fabio was back in charge.
It's not just England who will be happy: FIFA will be happy, Bloemfontein will be happy, Cape Town - where England play a possible quarter-final - and Rustenburg, where they are based, will be happy. It's a bit like the Indian cricket team at any of the world cups - they may be terrible but everyone hopes they make it to the end.
To be fair, England were much better on Wednesday than they have been through this tournament. They were clearly enjoying their football, which had a welcome fluidity to it, and there were a couple of partnerships that will have pleased the team management: Glen Johnson and James Milner, after both got over their initial nerves, and even Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard, before the striker was taken off.
There were tricks on view - Johnson's back-heel in the Slovenia box just before the hour was one audacious attempt - and though not all of them came off, they highlighted a confidence few would have expected after that dire result on Friday. Milner tried a few as well, though his dribbling appears to be an exercise in slow motion.
Yet England, despite the safety net of Defoe's goal, seemed happiest for lengthy periods in both halves to indulge in their traditional long-ball play. Punt after punt sailed from the midfield, or behind, towards the Slovenian defence where Jermaine Defoe struggled to out-jump his markers.
If, as is rumoured, some of the more talented foreign players are becoming bored with the Premier League, here was Exhibit A. And it was unnecessary, because England were at their liberated best when passing it around, either short or crossfield, 40 yards or more, with Gerrard, Barry and Johnson leading the way. It was direct stuff, the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) principle giving England the kiss of life when Defoe swept home Milner's ball in.
If it was England 1, Slovenia 0 on the pitch, it was England 1, Vuvuzelas 0 in the stands. For perhaps the first time in the tournament the much-maligned instrument was drowned out by the more traditional chanting of the England fans (the Slovenians were there too but were clearly third-best in this battle), giving hope to those who fear the coming season will be dominated by the alien sound.
One felt for Slovenia at the end. They started as brightly as England did but failed to take advantage of England's early tentative play; they never stopped attacking though, and though England were comfortably dominant their own profligacy ensured they were always a goal away from a disaster. Valter Birsa was exceptional, his five shots on goal more than England's forwards combined, and Sami Handanovic proved himself an effective, un-flashy shot-stopper.
Ultimately this was England's day. They have problems to sort out, not least Rooney's continuing poor form in front of goal before they face a far more potent, confident and energetic German side. The last word, though, must go to the coach. Would the players have a celebratory beer, Capello was asked as the press conference wound down. He smiled, leaned forward and said, "They drank beer yesterday evening. Before the game."