The result in Dnipropetrovsk will have no bearing on England’s place in next summer’s World Cup, but as Fabio Capello strode off the fiery turf in Eastern Europe, his worries would have been with the side’s guilt-edged errors as Ukraine were gifted a vital victory. It was a game where the Three Lions conspired to beat themselves with inexcusable lapses that may well come to haunt England in South Africa.
2 Johnson – 5 Ferdinand – 6 Terry – 3 A.Cole
7 Lennon – 11 Carrick – 8 Lampard – 4 Gerrard
9 Heskey – 10 Rooney
England’s back-line has been as steady as any other for the best part of five years now, but in recent months, it has been blighted by shaky performances and errors right across. Rio Ferdinand added to August’s blunder in Amsterdam by being beaten by a 70-yard thump up-field, resulting in Robert Green bringing down Artem Milevskiy for a penalty – and red card to the West Ham stopper. Ferdinand’s partnership with John Terry is undoubtedly a world-class combination, but the Manchester United defender’s form for the majority of 2009 has been worrying. Largely thanks to his persistent injury problems, Ferdinand has found himself lacking in match sharpness and it showed in Dnipropetrovsk. His first-half error saw England spend the majority of the match with 10 men and despite having the reprieve of a missed penalty by Andriy Shevchenko, England shot themselves in the foot again soon afterwards.
Ashley Cole – a man in mercurial form at present – gifted the hosts the ball on the edge of the 18-yard box and after Glen Johnson made a decent challenge in an attempt to spare the Chelsea man’s blushes, Cole promptly diverted Sergiy Nazarenko’s effort past David James with his head. As stated, Cole has been fantastic since Capello took the reins but it is his mishap that ultimately cost England on the night. There were numerous other scares for England’s defence – especially in the first 45 – and Capello must be address his side’s self-harming ways that threaten to de-rail their World Cup bid before it has begun.
Capello’s tactical nous has rarely been called into question throughout his flawless rein, but when Green was sent-off early on, the Italian’s decision to sacrifice Aaron Lennon was a questionable one. The Tottenham flyer is a major asset in most situations and when a team goes a man down, arguably his speed and directness is a superb weapon when trying to play on the counter-attack. Johnson’s surges down the right flank throughout the game highlighted their opponents weakness in dealing with pace and preventing a final ball. Instead, Capello opted to use Rooney on the right-flank with Emile Heskey as the hold-up man up-front on his own. Heskey did his boss no favours as he laboured, struggling to really get a hold of the ball – albeit a difficult job with no support – and bring his teammates into play. Indeed, if we cast our minds back to Manchester United’s game at White Hart Lane just last month, a certain Wayne Rooney gave a master-class in playing that exact role when Paul Scholes was shown red. Rooney’s constant hassling of the Spurs defenders along with his excellent hold-up play and running into the channels saw United go on to claim a valuable 3-1 win – Rooney himself grabbing a deserved goal. It would take a brave man to question Don Fabio’s tactical decisions but in hindsight perhaps Heskey was the man to sacrifice in that predicament.
The Three Lions were much better after the break as James Milner replaced the lacklustre Steven Gerard (who acquired a groin strain) to give England more width. Milner was impressive again and with Ukraine happy to sit on their lead, England created a few decent openings. Rooney was majestic in a promising second period where he and Milner were given more freedom to play up with Heskey. Johnson too got involved in attacking areas although the Liverpool man tended to run into trouble more times than not and leave his side short at the back. That said, Johnson had a decent game and along with James, slightly eased Capello’s mind in those two so-called problem positions. The goalkeeper has been a point of much discussion in the lead-up to the match and when Green’s name was seen on the teamsheet, many believed it to be a usurping of James’ No 1 spot. But on 13 minutes that may have all changed. Green’s supporters will claim he was the unlucky victim of Ferdinand’s shocking lapse but he seemed a slight bit indecisive when Milevskiy bore down on goal. Whether James would have dealt with the situation any differently is up for debate, but the Portsmouth man’s performance on the night was a very good one. No doubt the chopping and changing of keeper this past year has contributed to the defence’s shortcomings but James was quick to stake his claim once more as he pulled off a couple of vital stops. It remains to be seen if he has done enough to reclaim the jersey, but for now, he will be safe in the knowledge he did himself plenty of favours on the night, while Green did more harm than good.
On the whole, Capello’s first competitive defeat at the helm doesn’t really harm England. Qualification is assured and his side showed plenty of character in the second amongst various other positives. However, the bigger picture reveals some daunting problems. Ukraine were still a side that England should not have been so troubled by at the back, even when a man down. Capello has made it clear no-one’s place is guaranteed, so he must ask himself – how many more mistakes can Ferdinand be afforded? The former Leeds man is undoubtedly amongst the best in the business when in-form, but if his current plight fails to halt, perhaps England’s goalkeeper debate will take a back seat, as England search for a centre-back to step up to plate.
Ukraine 1-0 England – Nazarenko 29 (Green sent off 15)
Ukraine 4-3-3 – Pyatov – Kucher, Kobin, Rakitskiy, Khacheridi – Gai, Tymoschuk, Rotan – Nazarenko (Yarmolenko), Milevskiy, Schevchenko (Husyev)
England 4-4-2 – Green – Johnson, Ferdinand, Terry, A. Cole – Lennon (James 15), Lampard, Carrick, Gerrard (Milner 46) – Heskey (C. Cole 72), Rooney
Green – sold down the river – 6
Johnson – searched for an opening – 7
Ferdinand – awful error cost his side dear – 4
Terry – did well alongside his unstable partner – 7
Cole – slip-up marred steady display – 5
Lennon* – showed promise before being sacrificed – 6
Carrick – quiet but solid – 6
Lampard – showing good form for his country – 7
Gerrard** – ineffective – 6
Rooney – superb, tried to single handedly get his side a result – 8
Heskey*** – workhorse, but struggled when on the ball – 6
James* – some excellent saves – 7
Milner** – plenty of endeavour – 7
C.Cole*** – did little – 6
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