Well, I asked to see England give a similar performance to that against Israel on Saturday. The same line-up and same scoreline certainly satisfies that.
As promised, Russia aimed to do far more in the opposition’s half than Israel. They got into England’s box within the first minute and also forced the first corner. And before seven minutes were up, they paid for that directness, with England able to create opportunities of their own with the resulting space.
After Gareth Barry’s corner was cleared back to him on the right flank, he sent in a threatening cross. John Terry’s run and attempt at a header made mountains of space for Michael Owen, who made no mistake in side-footing home off the far post, giving England a dream start.
From the inception, England looked to equal Russia’s attack, and we were treated to an open and entertaining match, at least for the first half. Wright-Phillips and Richards were the focal point of the attack down the right flank for the first part of the game, as they were against Israel, and once again, Heskey looked to set up those around him admirably.
But Russia should have pulled level 19 minutes in. England failed to clear the ball, and it came to Zhyrianov, who chested it down, swiftly turned, and slotted it in. However, it was chalked off for handball, and honestly, it might have come off his arm after the chest. It sure looked to be incidental contact if it happened though, and England could consider themselves lucky.
But just after half an hour, Owen made it 2-0 after a flick-on from the ubiquitous Heskey with a delightful first-time volley. The half finished as it started, with both teams having decent spells of possession and decent chances on goal.
After the break, Russia was the better team for large stretches of the second half but without any stellar chances (although Robinson made a couple of nice saves), and honestly, the final 45 minutes were pretty dross. But credit to England, who held on and sealed the victory in the 84th minute with a stunning goal from Rio Ferdinand, faking out the defender and stepping past him before unleashing a strike from close range.
With Owen getting a brace, he’s got to be man of the match. Both goals showed how classy a poacher Owen can be, and if he can maintain his fitness (which has to be a big if after the last couple of years), he’ll soon be doing similar in the Premiership.
Gareth Barry was also again influential in midfield, this time overshadowing Gerrard’s contributions with his excellent passing. Gerrard did play the full 90 minutes, looked fit, and didn’t appear to take any knocks, which is great news for Liverpool fans. Joe Cole also threatened at times, but by the end of the game, showed his temperament in picking up a silly and unnecessary yellow card in a game that was otherwise without malice.
Heskey’s also going to get a bit of attention, and rightfully so, even if the majority of it is because of surprise at his inclusion in the last two games. I’ll say it straight up; I do not think Heskey is a better footballer than Peter Crouch. But if Michael Owen is going to be the focal point of the attack, which has become obvious, Heskey is the best partner for him. They know each other that well and complement one another excellently. It’ll be interesting to see how McClaren copes once Rooney is fit, as Heskey and Owen have looked a better partnership than any of the strikers paired with Rooney since 2004.
So all that was said after the Israel game has seemingly come to fruition. England could replicate their performance against better opposition. They’ve gotten ahead of Russia on points, and won so convincingly (or at least, the scoreline was convincing) that it has to be a psychological boost going into the game in Russia. And they’ve put themselves in pole position to qualify from this group.
But there’s still work to be done. Despite never wanting to seem confident about any team I root for, England should stroll over Estonia, especially based on the past two games. And they probably could drop points in Russia or against Croatia and be safe. But the key word in that sentence is “or.” England probably needs two wins from the final two games to advance. It’ll help matters that Croatia should have qualification sewn up by the final game, but I won’t put anything past England after how good the Croats have looked and England’s atrocious performance in Zagreb.
Still, as an England fan, you couldn’t have asked for much more from this game.
And even better is the fact that the Premiership resumes in less than three days.