Finally the pre-match ‘talk’ was over and England and Fabio Capello could finally get back to matters on the pitch. Sure enough there were plenty of talking points on a night where yet more World Cup stakes were claimed while one or two would have left Wembley pondering very different plans for the summer.
2 Brown – 6 Terry – 5 Upson – 3 Baines
7 Walcott – 8 Lampard – 11 Barry – 4 Gerrard
9 Defoe – 10 Rooney
Egypt’s visit represented a genuine challenge against a very capable side who are riding high following their African Cup of Nations triumph just over a month ago. Indeed the Pharaohs rode their high-spirited wave for the opening half of the match against a confidence-stricken and edgy England side. The off-field problems seemed to have hit the squad hard as the first half saw a great deal of nervy, anxious play – especially from the defenders. John Terry – the man whose eyeballs must be burnt to their very centre through being in the spotlight for so long – looked a distressed force. The boos would only knock him further and his anxiety seemed to rub off on his usually dependable defensive teammate Matthew Upson. In reality, even before his slip for Egypt’s opener, Upson had already misplaced passes and clearances leaving his slip-up rather ominous. The out-of-form Wes Brown is still nowhere near the player he was this time two years ago and Leighton Baines was decent although not eye-catching.
These are all genuine worries for Capello as three of his first choice defenders struggle for fitness. Upson has been Mr. Reliable whenever stepping into either Terry’s or Rio Ferdinand’s shoes so perhaps this one off-day should not raise alarms. Something that would not have gone unnoticed by the wily Italian was how much his side missed the attacking prowess of Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole. Their quality and pace from the full-back positions offer England an extra dimension when going forward, something that Baines and Brown couldn’t quite live up to. Indeed the balance of England’s play was upset by the lack of their full-back flyers with the Three Lions often tucking Steven Gerrard in when attacking purely so they can spring Cole on the left. It is a dimension which has been used to devastating effect in recent games but with Baines not quite in Cole’s class – although still a worthy deputy – this threat was nullified somewhat. The same can be said for the right hand side as Capello has always stuck a speedy out-and-out winger on this flank which has been a real threat with Johnson overlapping from full-back. However, with Brown a more accustomed central defender, he is less inclined to do so, rendering that wing far less efficient and threatening. If Capello’s two first choice full-backs are still absent come June, England will be a far less potent attacking unit, and more susceptible to fast counter-attacks.
However, the full-backs – or lack of – were far from the main talking point. Once again Peter Crouch featured, and once again the Tottenham man came up with important goals. His two second half strikes take his England tally to 20 in 37 games, which is difficult to argue with. Admittedly a number of these were against ‘lesser’ opposition but you can only score when on the pitch and when Crouch plays in the red or white of England, he more often than not scores. Perhaps it is time for a chance against the bigger sides – in South Africa no less? Whether his latest exploits have seen him jump a place or two in the queue is only known by Capello but he mercilessly overshadowed club teammate Jermain Defoe, who could only prove that his partnership with a certain Wayne Rooney is becoming more and more a no-go. The statistics do not lie, and Defoe has failed to score in his seven England starts alongside Rooney – compared to an excellent five in six without him. Any striker who fails to link up well with Rooney can almost wave goodbye to a starting berth in South Africa. But Crouch’s offerings did exactly the opposite. Not only did his goals do his chances no harm but his hold-up play gave England a real foothold in the game in the second half. With Defoe playing the central forward role, England have no out-ball, as the former West Ham and Portsmouth man struggles to make the ball stick when it is played forward. His alertness and quality in front of goal is almost unrivalled but his all-round play does little to benefit the side. For that reason alone, Emile Heskey is ahead of him in the pecking order and after Crouch’s display last night, Defoe may have fallen another slot down. His offerings come the summer look increasingly likely to be solely from her bench.
Another player who can be happy with his night’s work will be Shaun Wright-Phillips. Recently seen as Aaron Lennon’s understudy, the Manchester City winger gave an excellent display in the second half, staking his claim as Lennon’s like-for-like or more. His willingness to get beyond the full-back was a huge asset for England for the last half-an-hour and Capello would have been massively impressed with his end product – something that has forever let him down. But while Wright-Phillips staked his claim for the right-wing role, Theo Walcott – a surprise starter last night – had a night to forget. After taking apart Croatia in their own back yard almost 18 months ago, many expected the youngster to go on and nail down that right-sided role. But injuries and lack of form mean he is looking less and less likely to be on the plane come June. His performance last night stank of player short of confidence and match sharpness. His first touch was off and his general wing-play left a lot to be desired. Indeed his selection alone caused something of a stir, especially with the in-form and far more deserving James Milner left warming the bench. Surely Rooney is the only Englishman in better form than the Aston Villa midfielder? Capello has spoken of his selection policy being form based, so this struck as a strange decision. Perhaps, it was fuelled by the fact Milner has a guaranteed seat on the plane to South Africa, while Walcott still has to prove his cause.
All’s well that ends well. A shoddy first half was cleaned up by a very satisfactory second. The off-field problems can hopefully take a back seat from now on, as let’s face it, there are plenty of issues on the pitch. Capello has a great deal to chew on for the next few months as we get ever nearer to decision time.
England 3-1 Egypt– Crouch 56, 80, Wright-Phillips 75 – Zidan 23
England – (4-4-2) Green, Brown, Terry, Upson, Baines, Walcott (Wright-Phillips 57), Lampard (Carrick 46), Barry, Gerrard (Milner 73), Rooney (Cole 86), Defoe (Crouch 46)
Egypt– (4-4-2) El Hadari, Al-Muhammadi, Said (Salem 86), Fathi, Gomaa, Ghaly, Moawad (Abdelshafy 76), Hassan (Nagy 64), Abd Rabou, Zidan (Aboutreika 76), Ebdelmaby (Zaki 64)
Green – good – 7
Brown – decent outing considering recent form – 6
Terry – short of his best – 6
Upson – rare off day – 5
Baines – ok, but suffered alongside shaky defence – 7
Walcott – end product far from great – 5
Lampard – not great, missed good chance – 6
Barry – best display in an England shirt for a while – 8
Gerrard – grew into the game – 7
Rooney – didn’t quite happen but plenty of endeavour – 7
Defoe – offered little – 6
Crouch – you just can’t argue with his goalscoring record – 8
Carrick – calming influence, made a big difference – 8
Wright-Phillips – took his chance – 8
Milner – excellent cameo again – 7
C.Cole – little time – 6