The stunning performance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Sweden against England may have dominated much of the fall out of Wednesday’s friendly, much as the striker dominated the match itself, but Everton eyes were locked firmly on Leighton Baines and, in particular, the international debutant Leon Osman.
It is with pride and no little relief that it can be said Osman acquitted himself well. Forming an all-Merseyside midfield duo with Steven Gerrard on the occasion of the captain’s 100th appearance, Osman, only a year younger than Gerrard but at the complete opposite end of the England experience spectrum, did not look out of place.
Indeed, he was composed on the ball, tidy in possession and as fleet of foot as he so often is in club colours. The result may have ultimately tinged Osman’s England bow with disappointment but he was arguably one of few success stories on a rough night for Roy Hodgson’s side.
At left-back, deputising for the injured Ashley Cole, Baines was his usual solid self when transported to the international scene. But the tale of Baines for England is a hard one to tell, and one that may not have a happy ending for the player.
As if competing with Cole for the left-back position is not difficult enough – with Cole the next in line to join the England centenary club, the Chelsea player is as entrenched as can be – Baines also suffers because of his good form with Everton at the same time he is rewarded for the very same thing.
Baines has never looked out of his depth for England, but at the same time he has never looked as sensational as he routinely does for Everton. There could be many reasons why this is the case but prime amongst them must be his relationship with Steven Pienaar, and the lack of a comparable figure internationally.
On their own both Baines and Pienaar are clearly good players. Together they are excellent. But for Baines to look for England as wonderful as he does for Everton would require that kind of pairing, one borne of hours and hours of hard work on the training ground and so nigh on impossible to replicate in the more individualistic England set-up.
That is not to diminish Baines’ performance against Sweden. He was not at fault for any of the goals conceded and put in one particularly dangerous cross that zipped along the six yard box to the far post, where Osman was unable to stretch enough to control the ball.
Baines though was not the flying full-back seen at Goodison Park, because he there is no Pienaar to cut inside and orchestrate the play down that flank. Baines is part of Everton’s creative hub. For England he is just another full-back, albeit a highly-talented one. Without the licence to attack in the same way, however, he will struggle to replicate his domestic form on the broader stage.
Everton though can be proud of their two England players of midweek after they played with competency and efficiency, but seeing them back to their best in more familiar colours will be a welcome sight this weekend.
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