17 October 2007

England 1-2 Russia

For 69 minutes, England were playing the game they wanted. It wasn’t perfect, and the players were obviously uncomfortable with both the artificial surface and the opposition, but they were up 1-0 thanks to a superb Rooney goal and seemed to be in control. It was an exceptional goal by Rooney as well, wonderfully volleying home from a Michael Owen (!) header, but more important was how England were playing steadily, and bent but didn’t break against Russia’s attack.

And then, a penalty is given for a foul committed (by Rooney, who tried to escape blame with a hysterical swan dive) outside the box, and it’s level. 4 minutes later, substitute Pavluchenko, who tallied the penalty, scored again after Robinson’s save fell to his feet.

England had been under pressure in the second half, but while Russia was getting bodies forward and England was defending desperately, it still felt like they were going to hold on for the win. And now, not only is the team going home with a loss, qualification for Euro 08 depends on Russia dropping points against either Israel or Andorra.

England had two gilt-edged chances to go 2-0 in the second half. First, Barry’s free kick found Gerrard unmarked at the far post, only to see his volley tamely fly wide. Later, Micah Richards was unable to get on the end of Rooney’s flicked header, and Gabulov palmed the ball away.

The most frustrating part is that it’s “typical England.” The team played well; it might have even been their best performance until Russia’s goal, playing as well as they did in that hostile atmosphere and on a plastic pitch. An excellent win in Russia, and affirmation of McClaren’s regime was within their grasp. But in the end, they let in two goals they shouldn’t have, despite an excellent goals-against record, and now qualification hangs by a thread.

Missing out on Euro 08 would be an unmitigated disaster, and I’m obviously furious with this result, but there could be a silver lining.

I hate to kick a man when he’s down, and he’ll suffer an exemplary kicking this week, but McClaren’s not the answer for England. It’s almost a pity, because he’s gotten better results in recent games, making the correct decisions over Barry and Heskey and improving the team as a unit, but he’s never going to take England the necessary step further.

I find it hard to believe McClaren will be kept on if England fail to qualify, and England will have the opportunity to start anew, although I have no idea who they’ll turn to. I’d jokingly suggest Mourinho, but I still can’t decide if that’s sarcasm or not.

You only have to look at the changes made when England went 2-1 down. Admittedly, there wasn’t a lot McClaren could do with who was on the bench (Crouch, Lampard, Downing, Neville, Young, Shorey), but what he did was still baffling.

Waiting until there was 10 minutes remaining, McClaren sent on Crouch, Lampard and Downing for Cole, Wright-Phillips, and Lescott all at once.

I’ve praised and promoted Peter Crouch on many occasions. But this wasn’t the situation for him, and that he was the only striker on the bench is infuriating. He hasn’t been in the best of form for Liverpool recently, and he’s frequently struggled in international competition against physical defensives, where he gets more fouls called against him by touchy international referees (as happened today).

At the same time, Downing’s only a game-changer in McClaren’s mind (and he slotted in at left back), while there seems to be little use in throwing on Frank Lampard if Gerrard, who didn’t have the best of games, is still on the field. Although, I reiterate, the three unused substitutes were Shorey, Young, and Neville.

As to the other scapegoats, Gerrard will undoubtedly be one. Even ignoring the miss, he was below par today. In fact, his performance looked a lot like recent ones for Liverpool – every now and then he made a good tackle or a smart pass, or got himself into space for chances like the aforementioned one, but with no end product, and stretches of the game where he went missing. It’s not reassuring as a Liverpool fan by any stretch of the imagination, but he comes away from 180 minutes of international football uninjured, and hopefully with a chip on his shoulder for Saturday’s derby.

Paul Robinson, as usual, will be one of the others. He’s never been the most reliable, either for club or country, and the save that fell to Pavluchenko sticks out in the memory. I know England isn’t the deepest at the position, but at the least, I still find it unfathomable that Carson hasn’t seen more time over the past 3 months. Foster also has to be back in contention when he returns from injury.

Neither Cole nor Wright-Phillips played very well either, and if Lampard was going to be brought on while Gerrard stayed on the field, he should have come on for one of the two earlier, but neither stood out to the degree that either Gerrard or Robinson did.

Otherwise, certain players did do well. Barry’s been a revelation, and has to have cemented a place for the near future. Owen’s seemingly returned to fitness, and I still can’t believe that he won the header that led to Rooney’s stellar goal. Campbell and Ferdinand were a decent pairing, with Campbell making some excellent last-ditch challenges, while Richards gets better at international level in every game. But that more players disappointed than impressed is a big reason why England’s going home with a loss.

I honestly don’t know how England will react to this. Russia may well slip up in Israel; the Israelis have little to play for, but it’s never an easy place to travel to. I don’t see it though, and that means that England will fail to qualify for Euro 08, from a group they thought they’d waltz through. It may seem knee-jerk after all the good feelings in the last three outings, but something needs changing.

There were moments of brilliance, and over an hour of steady if not spectacular play, but that’s not enough for the amount of talent in the team and the importance of the sport in England.

0-0 draws against Macedonia and at Israel will linger longer than today’s loss, but all three results aren’t good enough. I almost hope Russia wins out as to not paper over the cracks, but I can’t root against England.

Either way, there needs to be changes. England isn’t good enough right now, and hasn’t been for too long.

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