Hope punctured as old frailties haunt England


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If Wales' Robert Earnshaw could hit a stationary target from five yards out then Fabio Capello would be waking up this morning to headlines arguably as hostile as those which followed England's World Cup exit last summer.

An extraordinary miss from the Cardiff City striker, when he might have levelled the score with 14 minutes left, was Capello's sweet reprieve amid another pretty wretched England performance. Faced with the prospect of scoring one of the most famous goals in the history of Welsh international football, Earnshaw did what generations of his country's great fly-halves have done and, with an open goal beckoning, stuck the ball squarely over the bar.

An equaliser for Wales would have been no less than England deserved. The hosts came alive at the end of the first half after Ashley Young scored the game's only goal. It was made by Stewart Downing but for long periods they were every bit as bad as their last outing at this stadium, against Switzerland in June.

It is probably just as well that they play their last Euro 2012 qualifier against Montenegro on 7 October in Podgorica because the Wembley yips have not gone away. As it is, England have one toe in the tournament next summer in Poland and Ukraine and a point in Montenegro will be good enough to see them there as automatic qualifiers, but this was a performance to puncture hope.

Even Wayne Rooney, the brightest spark of them all in Bulgaria on Friday failed to shine and – even worse – looked completely fed up at times on his own in attack. But Rooney cannot be expected to carry England every time. Unfortunately, Capello's team gave Wales every chance to get back in this game and they very nearly took it.

It took England until the last 10 minutes of the half when Downing, going down the Welsh left, gave Joe Ledley a dose of the twisted blood, cut the ball back and Young scored at the near post.

There were times at the start of the second half when it seemed that the pressing game Gary Speed had encouraged Wales to play might have drained them of the energy to come back into the game. Yet, having been on top, England once again seemed to pass the initiative back to their opponents.

It was another one of those Wembley nights when instead of going for the kill, England were suffused with a lack of direction. They were against opposition whom they should have been able to dispose of simply. They just got away with it but for Capello, there was the blunt realisation that there is still so much work to do.