So it is being billed as a ‘grudge’ match, a chance of revenge for England against a Croatian team which prevented them from challenging for glory at Euro 2008. Yet in reality, it is a match that should prove to be no more than a formality for a team already almost certainly qualified for the World Cup finals.
Keeping with the fashion literally flooding world football of late, the big story from the 2-1 victory against Slovenia at the weekend is – you guessed it – a penalty. In the wake of the controversy that has followed Eduardo since his tumble against Celtic exactly a fortnight ago on Wednesday – who somewhat ironically will square up against England on the night – almost every foul in every fixture has been under intense scrutiny. It was his opposite number Wayne Rooney, however, who grabbed the headlines this time around. Following a cross from Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney appeared to go down and a penalty was given. Yet on closer inspection Rooney was fortunate that the foul wasn’t in fact given the other way round. The England forward clearly had a hold of Bostjan Cesar and a late lunge by the Manchester United man connected with the defender’s ankle, ruling him out of any further participation. Unlike the Eduardo incident, however, it is obvious that Rooney did not dive, and so cannot be accused for cheating. The blame is quite rightly shouldered by the officials, yet this is more evidence in the argument that televised replays should be used.
The other story in circulation in the build up to Wednesday’s clash is who Fabio Capello will pick to partner Wayne Rooney in attack as Jermain Defoe’s recent goal-scoring hot streak continues after he scored the winner against Slovenia. While this dilemma on the surface sounds not a bad one to have as a manager, the deeper problem facing Capello concerning his strike force is when he considers the bigger picture – also known as the World Cup in South Africa this summer. Yes, Defoe is looking supremely confident in front of goal – scoring five in three for the national team – yet the Tottenham hit-man has been known to drift in and out of form and when this happens, does the Italian have the firepower to cope with a long and arduous international tournament?
If he believes he does, another point to consider is whether Defoe’s role in the national side should be – as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made famous in his Manchester United days – a super sub. It is clear Capello is considering this role after saying: “When Defoe plays in the second half he scores,” and England’s laborious victory over Slovenia went to show that Defoe is as effective at coming off the bench as teammate Emile Heskey is ineffective as a starter. However, in a World Cup semi-final, for instance, would Defoe be as useful coming on as a substitute against a top-class defence or starting and maybe notching a goal by half-time? As seen on Saturday, Heskey, while he has his uses, is not good enough to start a competitive international where goals are vital. Capello clearly has his doubts over including Peter Crouch in his starting 11, which leaves the Coach with one other option – Carlton Cole.
While it is important not to get ahead of ourselves regarding the West Ham target-man, his overall form of the past 12 months has been excellent and in his few appearances at international level has looked dangerous. He has shown since his early days at Chelsea as a raw striker with a questionable mentality, that he has progressed and matured wonderfully and fully deserves to be in contention for national duty. Whether or not Capello will ultimately prefer him as the more suitable starting partner for the talismanic Rooney in nine months’ time is still very much so up for debate, yet if Cole can build upon the form he has shown in previous internationals, he is definitely in with a shout.
The last point of discussion touted by newspapers and websites this week is England’s lack of a real replacement for Rio Ferdinand for the Croatia match, and again looking ahead to the World Cup. Following recent blights of back and leg injuries for the United centre back, it appears Mathew Upson is Capello’s first choice centre-back while Joleon Lescott appears the major competitor to Upson for this spot. Both players have failed to impress of late, with Lescott one of the main culprits for Slovenia’s late consolation goal on Saturday. Capello has himself stated that concentration towards the closing minutes of the game was his major issue following Saturday and, while Ferdinand was renowned for his lack of concentration as a youngster, the United centre-back has proved in recent years that he has the levels of concentration to compete at the highest level and his partnership with John Terry, when both fit, is unshakable. While Ferdinand will stride back into the team, there are other available options to Upson and Lescott, with Wes Brown making a recent return from injury, and a late call up for Gary Cahill showing the regard the manager holds the Bolton centre-back in. But a lack of experience at the top level means he cannot be considered a major challenger in the build up to South Africa.
August 12, 2009 – 19:45 – Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam
Holland 2-2 England – Kuyt 10, van der Vaart 38 – Defoe 49, 77
Tactical preview – Topical preview – England Camp Focus
England Analysis – Match report