11 October 2006

England 0-2 Croatia

I don’t care if Croatia has never been beaten at home in a qualifying match. I don’t care if the entire stadium lined up in swastikas, shouted racial epithets, and was the worst place in the entire universe to play soccer, as some tabloids would have you believe. Any time an England manager admits that his entire game plan was to try and sneak a win, he's going to be questioned and rightly so.

Slaven Bilic absolutely out-managed McClaren, and the Croats dominated the game. Didn’t really matter what formation England was playing, as Croatia jumped on top of them, and England pretty much played with nine men back. Any way you want to line it up on paper (and I still firmly believe it was more 5-3-2 than anything), it quickly became very defensive and it looked as if England would be more than satisfied with a 0-0 draw. Only Paul Robinson kept them in the game in the first half, which made his role in the Neville own goal debacle all the more fitting. Other than Rooney’s blast over the bar, I can’t think of any real opportunity England had.

I’m angry, and there’s always going to be a fair amount of overreaction after a loss, but this was an England performance that makes recent England performances look absolutely inspired. I will never wish for the days of Eriksson or Graham Taylor, but McClaren is trying to tempt me. There is no team here, just a collection of individuals who sometimes can be bothered, and the tactics seem dreadfully wrong as well. They fully deserved to lose this game.

I do not understand how England does not have one of the best midfields in the world. The roster, albeit when fit and available, reads like a murderer’s row: Gerrard, Lampard, Cole, Hargreaves, Carrick, Parker, Lennon, Wright-Phillips, even Beckham and a fair supply of youngsters if needed. A midfield of Carrick, Parker and Lampard, supposedly three of the best central midfielders in the Premiership, was unable to control today’s game at all. Maybe I overrate the players because they play in the Premiership, but all three were made to look pedestrian by Croatia. The link up play between the midfield and forwards has been disappointing at best, and nonexistent at worst of late. Yes, Rooney is off-form and Crouch hasn’t scored in two games, but when the service isn’t there, and both strikers are dropping deep to win the ball, what do you expect?

All the usual mollifying remarks, there’s still games to be played, points to be won, and a long way to go all still apply. But the excuses are getting tiresome. Qualification just got a fair amount tougher. With the players on the roster, England should be playing far better than they are. No matter that England has always underachieved. No matter that it’s still early days in Euro qualifying and in McClaren’s reign. No matter that the team doesn’t have enough time to play together because these qualifying games are being played during the league season. No matter the injury and suspension list.

No more excuses. England should be better. End of.

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