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england 2-1 ukraine

England defy striking crisis

April 2, 2009
By Phil Holland at Wembley Stadium
(Archive)

Fabio Capello emerged from one of his more trying weeks as England coach with two important wins but neither Saturday's trouncing of Slovakia nor Wednesday's narrow win over Ukraine can hide a burgeoning concern over the paucity of striking options available to him.

Peter Crouch
GettyImages / RyanPierseThe chase for Crouch is hotting up.

Victory at Wembley over a technically proficient and dangerous Ukrainian side means England maintained their 100% record in World Cup qualifying with five straight wins, but despite a commanding five-point lead atop Group Six ahead of Croatia, goals are a worry.

It may seem churlish to worry about scoring with England's "goals for" column reading 16, but after Wayne Rooney, who failed to register on the occasion of his 50th cap, there is a genuine worry about the potency of England's strikers.

When England reach South Africa, as they now surely must, if the lacklustre pairing of Peter Crouch and Rooney is to be England's primary attack the world's meanest defences will hardly quake.

Crouch took his goal well in the 29th minute but it was telling that England required central defender John Terry to seal the win after a lethargic second half performance allowed Ukraine back into the game.

Perhaps the availability of goalscoring defenders like Terry and the attacking threat offered by Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard will provide the get out clause Capello may need because, at least at present, after Rooney and Crouch there is no established pecking order of striking talent, rather a list of unconvincing possibles.

With Michael Owen deemed unfit and his future in doubt, Jermain Defoe injured and Theo Walcott also on his way back from a lay-off (and in reality a winger not a striker), Capello was this week left to mull the talents and frailty of Darren Bent, Carlton Cole, Emile Heskey and Gabriel Agbonlahor; all inconsistent at club level and surely not of true, top international calibre.

If Bent, Cole and Agbonlahor warranted a call-up could not the likes of Andrew Johnson, Kevin Davies and even Bobby Zamora consider themselves unlucky? That any of these distinctly average players are part of Capello's plans speaks volumes to the weakness of England's depth of striking options.

Striking talent was the talking point amongst the Ukrainian press pack before, during and after the game following coach Oleksiy Mykhaylichenko's decision not to start Andrei Shevchenko.

Before kick-off it was expected that because of rift with Mykhaylichenko it would be Andrei Voronin who would miss out on the chance to partner Dynamo Kiev striker Artem Milevskiy, who had a deep-lying role prior to Shevchenko's introduction in the 54th minute.

With a Capello-esque analysis of Shevchenko's waning star, Mykhaylichenko opted to favour Voronin, a striker in form with 11 goals and three assists in 23 appearances this season for Hertha Berlin, rather than a man who despite an exceptional record is simply not the force he once was.

Wayne Rooney
GettyImages / CliveRoseWayne Rooney: In a class of his own up front

Credit where it's due; Shevcehnko took his goal well and proved that while the years may have robbed him of his pace he retains the lightening quick instincts of a striker. His synapses fired quickest to volley home after a free-kick ricocheted off Glen Johnson in the 74th minute.

The introduction of Shevchenko and Sergiy Nazarenko in the 61st minute revitalised Ukraine and provided the impetus to they needed to get back into the game. It was at this point in the game that Crouch was beginning to look tired and had Owen been available to Capello perhaps his introduction could have had a similar impact for England as the former Chelsea striker had for the visitors.

Where Ukraine benefited in being able to bring on Shevchenko, who scored his 40th goal as he won a record 86th cap for Ukraine, England had no-one of such potency to call on from the bench.

Like Shevchenko, Owen may not be the force he was once, but he has proved time and again that you write him off at your peril. Similarly, Owen has a tremendous international record with 40 goals in 89 games for England, but Capello's rule is that players are picked on form and fitness alone, past performance is an irrelevance to a coach who has little regard for reputation.

But where his Ukrainian counterpart was able to benefit from taking a punt on a player seemingly out of form and playing little more than a bit part role at AC Milan and giving him a place in the squad, Capello had no such option.

England's position in the group bears out Capello's decision, but it is interesting to hypothesise whether the manner of the win would have been more convincing had he had Owen as an option from the bench.

Capello and his backroom team regard Owen as a luxury, a player who only scores goals, who contributes little else, unlike Rooney who combines a scoring threat with a more all-round and inventive game. But, unlike Heskey or Bent, Owen would, in much the same ways as Shevchenko, command the respect of opponents even if there was a diminished fear factor.

There will be criticism of England's performance on Wednesday night, particularly when compared to the dynamic, flashing blades win over Slovakia, but, make no mistake, Ukraine posed a genuine threat and were never likely to be a pushover.

Ranked 14th in the world by FIFA and until Wednesday unbeaten in qualifying (and overall since May 2008), Ukraine were responsible for stymying England, restricting their movement and fluency, with skipper Anatoliy Tymoshchuk in his role as the screening midfielder particularly effective in disabling the Rooney-Gerrard axis.

Capello was an animated observer as he patrolled his rather meagre technical area; the Italian clearly frustrated at his side's inability to break down the visitors. (In a stadium this size surely coaches could be granted a little more room in which to prowl?).

Perhaps his displeasure manifested itself on the England team who at times played with a certain anxiety as the resolute Ukraine shut the door on their attempted attacks.

But with victory securing England's 100% record, Capello can reflect with some satisfaction on an injury-marred week. But the question over a certain Newcastle striker will not go away just yet.