Few crumbs of comfort for England
There has been a sequence of shocks in South Africa in recent days and now England have provided an addition to the catalogue. They were shockingly bad. Unlike Spain and Germany, they remain unbeaten but, besides the assured return of Gareth Barry, there are few other positives.
At least, it might be said, they are not France. But, cross-channel gloating apart, they failed to beat an Algeria side containing ten French-born players who, in most cases, were never likely to be capped by Les Bleus - they were more their G team than their B team. Yet Algeria, who looked resoundingly mediocre against Slovenia, resembled a decent outfit against England. Karim Ziani was the most skilful midfielder on show, Rafik Halliche the most dependable defender.
In a pre-match interview, Fabio Capello asserted, rather oddly, that Algeria score a lot of goals. He should be grateful they do not: the Desert Foxes have one in seven games and, were they to possess a forward line, victory may have been theirs.
"We've got no excuses," said Steven Gerrard, who tends to be more candid than most, including his manager. "Not good enough." It was honest, but an understatement nonetheless. Start with 'abject' and 'abominable' and select any number of similarly disparaging adjectives from the dictionary - they would all be accurate. There were misplaced passes, misjudged touches and misguided ideas. Too much was missing: invention, incision, inspiration.
Kick and rush? At times they didn't even bother with the rushing. The kicking wasn't particularly effective either, especially in the final third. Algeria changed goalkeeper, but Rais M'Bolhi enjoyed a comfortable game. The replacement was rarely tested.
The sight of Emile Heskey tripping over the ball as he prepared to cross was sadly emblematic of his evening. As is all too typical, Heskey rarely dared enter the penalty area as his confidence dipped. Alongside him, Wayne Rooney, average against the Americans, was out of sorts against the Algerians.
There were a couple of occasions when Gerrard and Rooney combined encouragingly, but there were more when they were on separate wavelengths. Rooney has still not scored since he was injured in Munich in March. On fire then, the spark is absent now and, 20 years on from Italia '90, Wazza is no Gazza just yet.
But it is unfair to focus solely on him. Frank Lampard, Aaron Lennon, Ashley Cole: each is operating some way below the standards he set at club level. Gerrard looked a man depressed at Anfield and, in the opening game, a man possessed. This was more like his Liverpudlian lethargy. Glen Johnson, perhaps the outstanding individual against USA, regressed and was troubled by the touch of Ziani.
And yet alternatives appear few and far between. Capello showed a reluctance to trust his substitutes which, given the level of performance, is damning. The first two deployed, Jermain Defoe and Shaun Wright-Phillips, at least looked sharper, but the Italian's faith in the Manchester City substitute appears increasingly bizarre nonetheless.
The sole crumb of comfort in the performance came from Eastlands. Barry was comfortably England's man of the match, aided by the complete lack of competition from his colleagues. He performed the defensive midfield role adeptly, sweeping up in front of the defence and making a couple of excellent interceptions. His distribution was respectable, but England's pass completion statistics should show some unflattering statistics.
At least now they have a holding player, but the issues lie further forward. Personnel and formation are twin problems. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, a switch to 4-2-3-1 is surely required now. Surely Joe Cole merits a chance now. Surely England have to demonstrate some ambition. They need to pass; they need some class.
They need, too, a demonstration of Capello's winning habit. It is far from the only subject to address, but he has a third alteration to make to the centre of defence. The high-quality crocks, Rio Ferdinand and Ledley King, will be joined on the sidelines by the suspended Jamie Carragher for Wednesday game with Slovenia. Enter either Matthew Upson or Michael Dawson, two more who don't seem to command Capello's confidence.
Beat Slovenia and they are through, probably undeservedly. The backdrop may provide a consolation but Cape Town, for England, was the Cape of No Hope.