Johnson Terry Upson ACole
Milner Lampard Gerrard
Brecko Suler Cesar Jokic
Birsa Radosavljevic Koren Kirm
Thank whatever God you believe in.
It's hard to focus on England, despite my priorities, after seeing the US snatch a very deserved winner in injury time, but let's soldier on.
For 70 minutes, it was arguably the best England performance since beating Croatia, even though a narrow 1-0 lead is rightfully terrifying no matter how comfortable England looked, especially with how this side's reacted to pressure. But Capello's revamped 4-4-2, with Defoe in place of Heskey and Milner for Lennon bore early fruit.
Having Milner stuck to the right touchline, with Defoe's pace far more of a threat than either Heskey or Rooney, is what led to the 23rd minute strike, with Milner's inch-perfect cross shinned past Handanovic. That England failed to get a second when clearly in the ascendancy – Lampard ballooned over, Handanovic saved Gerrard's low, placed shot – obviously fostered fears. But Upson and Terry were heroic in defense, throwing themselves across the pitch and keeping Ljubijankic and Novakovic mainly under wraps, with almost all of the Slovenian threats coming from right-winger Birsa, who took advantage of Gerrard's propensity to cut in and Ashley Cole's repeated charges up-field.
The pattern repeated after the interval. Defoe had a second chalked off when Rooney was ruled offside on Lampard's through before setting up a wide-open Defoe in the 49th. Soon after, Rooney and Gerrard – England's two biggest disappointments – fouled up an excellent chance when over-intricate just outside the box, followed by Handanovic making enormous stops on Terry's header and Rooney's shot – the fingertips save tipping Rooney's shot onto the post when he was narrowly ruled onside and one-on-one with the keeper most impressive.
But from there, the pressure clearly set in. Slovenia could have been level in the 68th when Barry gave the ball away and Birsa countered. Kirm found Dedic, flicking on to Novakovic, but first Terry then Johnson were there to make preposterous blocks. Rooney, who couldn't find the net for love or money, was replaced by Joe Cole in the 72nd, which coincidentally was also when Slovenia began to truly frighten.
No matter how poorly Rooney was playing (and it was pretty poorly), neither Defoe nor Cole – who played behind the striker with Gerrard remaining out left – can hold up play like the United striker, neither provide his willing, non-stop running, and the opposition increasingly saw more of the ball, undoubtedly aided by England shrinking back to defend with the tension indescribably intense.
Heskey's entrance for Defoe with five minutes to play helped England's ability to keep the ball, with Slovenia's lone late chance again blocked by a diving Englishman, this time Upson on Dedic. Milner and Joe Cole did well to keep the ball at the Slovenian corner flag for the totality of stoppage time, and England, thankfully, were through, despite only looking like a coherent side for approximately 75 of 270 minutes so far.
Credit to Capello for making those questioned changes, and Milner, Defoe, Upson, and Terry were England's men of the match. I was admittedly surprised by both the line-up and the continuing use of 4-4-2, but it worked, and England are through. That's why Capello makes the big bucks. This will almost assuredly be the England XI going forward.
Still, no matter how surprisingly decent Slovenia were – and going home is truly harsh on them, but that's the World Cup – there are still clear problems with this team. The "big names" again haven't found their feet. Gerrard, under the weight of the captaincy and relegated to a left-sided berth, has been largely anonymous since his 4th minute goal against the US oh so many moons ago, although he was more influential (if still out of position) today. Rooney still contrives to miss chances he'd score for the Mancs with his eyes closed. Lampard took one shot today, and I'm surprised the ball stayed in the stadium. This team will struggle to progress, especially if they face Germany in the next round, with those three misfiring.
Despite my various allegiances, I'm glad the US finished first in the group with Donovan's 91st-minute goal. It's deserved after how resilient that team's been and the dubious refereeing decisions that the media can finally let go of. But I'm even happier than England's through despite their constant struggles. Insert standard line about 'winning ugly,' but more important is how it'll be a release valve for all the frustration built up over the past couple of weeks. And that the lone goal conceded in group play came from a fluky mistake is a massive positive as well.
No matter how it happened, they're through. Phew.