Fabio Capello was brought in to Coach the national side with one clear initial aim – to put the country’s disappointment of missing out on the European Championships behind us and ensure qualification for next year’s World Cup Finals in South Africa. Wednesday night’s performance shows us that he has more than achieved his objective, but the work doesn’t end there.
England’s performance could not have shown a greater contrast with the scenes at Wembley in November 2007. This time it was the England fans, quite literally singing and dancing their merry way home, the Croatians having to put on the brave faces. Victory for Capello’s men does not signal the end of the qualifying campaign for the Croats, but it is certainly a body blow that Slaven Bilic would have hoped to avoid.
The Three Lions could not have started any better under the lights, with an energetic attacking display clearly the order of the day from the Coach. It was no surprise that the first goal came so early with Man-of-the-Match Aaron Lennon earning the penalty for Frank Lampard to convert. The Tottenham winger was an undeniable highlight in a side where it would in truth be grossly unfair to single out individuals. That said, his contribution to the game was imperative and his standing ovation, received from all quarters of Wembley, a just reward for a performance that surely stakes his claim for the No 7 shirt on a regular basis. Lennon was a constant threat, the Croatian defence simply unable to contain him. With Capello’s initial reluctance to include David Beckham in his squads, the right side of the English midfield has been kept warm by many. Lennon may not relinquish it so easily.
The re-emergence of Emile Heskey in an England shirt has been an absolute pleasure to watch, and Wednesday night appeared to be the next chapter in a flourishing revival. True, he has never been prolific for England but has he ever really been prolific at club level? Of course, as a striker he is expected to score goals but a player of his mould is expected to do so much more. The Aston Villa forward came deep so often, always looking for the ball, allowing Wayne Rooney to push further up the field and offering Steven Gerrard the perfect opportunity to push on and join the attack. It is no coincidence that the Liverpool captain found himself on the score sheet twice thanks to some beautiful link-up play with Rooney. Heskey may have already departed the proceedings for Gerrard’s second goal, but he was by no means an anonymous figure in his former Liverpool teammate’s first.
This result was no turning-point, yet its importance simply cannot be over-stated. England is a team on the way back up, but we have come to realise this as the qualifying programme has unfolded. The true significance of victory over Croatia is that it confirmed our place in South Africa next year. Gone are the dark days of Steve McLaren and the rotten memories of summer 2008. A summer dominated by the unthinkable reality of a major football championship without an England side. This period of misery was confirmed by an efficient Croatian performance on a winter’s night at Wembley almost two years ago. The fact that England’s opponent on Wednesday was their Balkan adversary was merely a sweet irony.
It is typical however, of our beautiful game that despite such a positive result, many more questions are presented for Fabio to answer. The debate will continue to rage as to whether Jermain Defoe should be given a place in the starting line-up. The Spurs striker was perhaps a little quiet on the night but he did little wrong. With nothing at stake in the final two qualifying games, other than of course maintaining the fantastic unbeaten run, will Defoe be given the start that his recent form for club and country surely merits? The Italian Coach clearly appears to favour Heskey in partnership with Rooney but with the pressure off, perhaps it is time to experiment with other ideas. And speaking of the strikers, what now of Michael Owen? It is no secret that he still harbours an England ambition but with so many options seemingly open to Capello, does the Manchester United forward stand a chance? It is worth suggesting that never has there been a more important time for him to start finding the back of the net in the Premier League.
Over the last decade, much has been written about the troublesome left-side of the English midfield. It seems now that the Coach will be facing problems on the opposite side, albeit for all the right reasons. Beckham has made his intentions clear that he wants to be playing at the World Cup but the dazzling display of Aaron Lennon last night has surely put him in pole position to fill this vacancy. It is only a shame that Shaun Wright-Phillips failed to show his true capabilities on the right-side against Slovenia on Saturday. His past performances for the national team have shown promise, a talent that could yet still deliver. Could all three be on the plane to South Africa?
Much has been said of the discipline of the national side under Capello, compared to that under his predecessors. He certainly has the respect of the players and the improvements are plain for all to see. The performance under the arch has sent a message out to the football world. Slaven Bilic may feel that England has lost its football identity, that they no longer play the way an England side should play. Whether that is true or not, the facts are that the Three Lions are roaring once again, and it feels like the good times are on their way back.
August 12, 2009 – 19:45 – Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam
Holland 2-2 England – Kuyt 10, van der Vaart 38 – Defoe 49, 77
– ECF – Three Lions gear up for ‘ridiculous’ friendly – August 11, 2009
– Match report
– England Analysis – Superior England spoiled by shocking errors
September 5, 2009 – 17:30 – Wembley, London
England 2-1 Slovenia – Lampard 31, Defoe 63 – Ljubijankic 83
– ECF – Calm before the storm – September 3, 2009
– Match Report
– England Analysis – Tepid dress rehearsal sparked by Defoe
September 9, 2009 – 20:00 – Wembley, London
England 5-1 Croatia – Lampard 8 (pen), 59, Gerrard 18, 66, Rooney 77 – Eduardo 73
– ECF – Rooney to meet his supposed mentor – September 8, 2009
– England Analysis – Sweet revenge for superb England
– ECF – England finds form, then more questions – September 12, 2009