England qualified for the Round of 16 with victory over Slovenia. Jermain Defoe scored the only goal of the game midway through the first half in a deserved win after a much improved English performance. The Slovenians went out of the World Cup after a last gasp goal by the United States against Algeria sent the Americans through as group winners.
Valter Birsa tested David James after seven minutes, cutting in from the right and shooting low at the England keeper. Frank Lampard hit a 35 yard freekick in the 14th minute which Samir Handanovic did well to hold low down to his right with the ball moving in the air. Wayne Rooney had a shot deflected wide three minutes later after Matthew Upson won the ball on the edge of the area. Moments later, Glen Johnson shot from 25 yard with his left foot but Handanovic held on comfortably. England went ahead after 22 minutes thanks to Defoe’s close range volley. James Milner whipped a great ball into the centre and Defoe got his shin to it six yards out to beat Handanovic who got hands to the ball but could not keep it out. Handanovic had more of a chance after half an hour, clinging on at the second attempt from Steven Gerrard’s low shot after he had parried Defoe’s 20 yard effort to Rooney.
Defoe should have doubled the lead straight after half time. Rooney took a quick corner that Handanovic punched clear but the ball was played back into Defoe who flicked wide from six yards. Defoe did have the ball in the net after 49 minutes from Rooney’s cut back but it was ruled out after both strikers had been offside from the original pass forward. Handanovic did well to push John Terry’s far post header wide in the 57th minute and did even better moments later to tip the ball on to the post when Rooney found himself clean through on goal. It was last ditch defending galore in the England area after 67 minutes. First Terry blocked from Milivoje Novakovic then Johnson blocked from Zlatko Dedic before Birsa fired wide. Tim Matavz could have equalised for Slovenia after 90 minutes to send England out but Upson got a critical tackle in as he shaped to shoot.
Although England were still not at their best, the first half performance was a vast improvement on their previous efforts at the World Cup in South Africa. After a nervous start with some poor touches and rash challenges that thankfully went unpunished, England began to get into gear and dominate the game. For all the relative merits of Emile Heskey, Defoe offered England more of a threat in front of goal, making runs into dangerous channels and allowing Rooney the freedom to roam. Defoe had scarcely touched the ball before his goal but he had already put in a hard shift dragging the centre-backs around. Heskey may get more involved in games, but Defoe showed what he is all about by finding the net with virtually his first touch. It was his excellent movement that allowed him to get in front of his marker to meet the cross from Milner, moving towards the back post before the ball was played in before darting quickly towards the front post before the defender could react.
Milner had leapt his way up the England pecking order with his performances over the past season, going from complete outsider to a certain pick in the squad. Having dented his reputation with a virus-affected performance against the United States where he was hauled off after 30 minutes on the left flank, Milner was reinstated to the team on the right of midfield and looked the player that he had proved to be in the Premier League. His crossing was exceptional, playing the ball early from deep positions and aiming for the middle of the six yard line. Not only did his cross set up the goal for Defoe, he also caused Handanovic to push one away to Lampard who blazed over and forced a corner from another from which Terry came very close.
In the second half, England continued to dominate without managing to put the Slovenians to bed. Handanovic was superb in goal, getting his hands on the Jabulani ball time and again in defiance of the criticism and complaints from keepers about the ball. His save from Rooney after 58 minutes was outstanding, getting the merest of fingertips to the ball to deflect it on to the post. Initially it looked like Rooney had scuffed his shot, unsurprising as he probably believed himself to be offside. Instead, replays showed his shot would have crept in the corner had Handanovic not saved and the goal would have counted as Rooney had beaten the offside trap. Moments before, he had made another impressive save, just keeping out Terry’s close range header at the base of his post.
The winning goal from Landon Donovan for United States moved them above England to top the group but it might not be a bad thing for England. There is no guarantee that Germany will top Group D and England will fancy their chances off the back of this performance against any of the other three teams. Finishing second also means that England will play on Sunday rather than Saturday, leaving an extra day of rest for the players. With Rooney having limped off, this could make the difference between him being fit or not. A potential quarter final against Argentina could now await but England will take that having been third in the group at the start of play. For Slovenia, there is heartbreak with the timing of the American goal, but they knew what they had to do before the game which was to get at least a draw to be guaranteed of going through.
Slovenia – Handanovic, Brecko, Suler, Cesar, Jokic, Koren, Kirm, Radosavljevic, Ljubijankic, Birsa, Novakovic
England – James, Johnson, A Cole, Terry, Upson, Gerrard, Lampard, Barry, Milner, Rooney, Defoe