Capello on war path as England produce leaden display in final warm-up game
Manager faced with familiar problem as Gerrard and Lampard fail to gel again
Before the kick-off the England players paraded a sign in Setswana to the crowd that translated as, "Happy to be here with you". In the 57th minute Wayne Rooney was booked for dissent and the notion that the English contingent was happy looked like the afternoon's biggest fantasy.
This was, at times, an excruciating experience for the two XIs which Fabio Capello fielded against the Platinum Stars – 16th in an 18-team South African Premiership last season and summoned from their holidays to play. In particular it was painful for the England XI in the first half which conceded a penalty that, had it been converted, would have been a goal on a par, in terms of infamy, with San Marino's in 1993.
It can be dangerous to read too much into a game of this kind in which every England player – from Rooney to Stephen Warnock – was doing his best to escape unscathed for when the real action starts on Saturday against the United States. The players were told to treat it as nothing more than a training session albeit with proper opposition and a referee. In the annals of the England team history it will not register as a proper international.
Yet, even so there was that familiar gnawing pre-tournament apprehension in the pit of the English stomachs, fuelled also by those warm-up games against Mexico and Japan. That feeling that says: what if we have seen the best of this team in qualifying and there is no more left?
Capello must have felt that fear too because, for a meaningless training game, he did a lot of despairing at his players during the first half, articulating his emotions with that characteristic pleading gesture, arms straight at his sides, palms up. He also did himself little credit when he became involved in a row with the female fourth official.
In front of an enraptured crowd of locals in a rural North West province town that just does not get to see footballers of the fame of the men in white shirts, this was something of an embarrassment. There was no question that in the first half the Platinum Stars played the better football.
It will be the memory of the first half that Capello seeks to put right this morning and, most crucially, the partnership of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in the centre of midfield. Between them they could not make the England midfield anything more than predictable and static. By the end of the half they were trying to play through the centre of their opposition.
With Gareth Barry now out of the game with the US, Capello will have to ask the question whether he can afford to be without an orthodox holding midfielder on Saturday. The Lampard-Gerrard axis may suddenly click into place in this tournament but the consequences of them playing as poorly as they did yesterday will be very serious.
If there was another key concern then it was the temperament of Rooney who struggled to control his furies despite the low-key nature of the game. In the 57th minute he went over the top on the midfielder Kagiso Senamala. Later he was booked for dissent. The testament of the referee Jeff Selogilwe that Rooney swore at him during the match suggested that the unpredictability that takes control of England's most talented player is still there.
The rage ebbs and flows in Rooney who, after he scored the third goal in the 3-0 win, seemed to calm down at last. At the end of the match his jersey was naturally the most sought-after by the opposition players but Rooney made a point of seeking out the Platinum Stars player who had asked him first and handing over his shirt.
Played together in attack for the first 45 minutes, it was not Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe's most auspicious half together with some of the familiar tensions from their partnership at Tottenham evident as Defoe tried to shoot from everywhere. He scored the first goal neatly enough but his passing was all over the place. But he was not the only one that allegation could be made against.
Most disappointing was that after 10 days in Austria and a further five in South Africa, there was no pace or imagination about England. They did not stretch their opposition who, in the first half in particular, passed the ball around their famous visitors on more than one occasion. Capello's team were locked into the rigid lines of 4-4-2.
It was scarcely a test for John Terry and Ledley King who were playing together in the centre of England's defence for the first time in three years although if you were searching for something positive from the first-half performance then it was the ease with which they took care of the threat from the opposition. Glen Johnson conceded the penalty and neither he nor Ashley Cole had one of their better days.
In the first half in particular, England failed to put any pressure on their opponents and as result the players of the Platinum Stars grew in confidence.
By the end of the second half, with England three goals ahead, it felt as if the people of Moruleng had seen something closer to what they expected. Aaron Lennon was the game's most dangerous player, running from deep into the inside-right position and committing defenders. He has made the strongest case of any of the possibles to start on Saturday.
In that second half Joe Cole – who scored the second and was the only England player to feature for 90 minutes – and James Milner who played in central midfield, demonstrated a liveliness that put their opposition on the back foot. They will remember this game for a long time, although like the rest of us, they may struggle to make sense of England's performance.
What we learnt from England's display
The Lampard-Gerrard axis still does not work Rarely has Gareth Barry looked so indispensable. The return of the odd couple did not invigorate England in the centre of midfield. Instead they struggled to raise the tempo of the game and, for all their individual qualities, found themselves worryingly ineffective.
Which could mean a chance for James Milner He did a good job in the centre of midfield in the second half. Much better than against Mexico. A possible stand-in for Barry against the United States?
England need to push on As Fabio Capello told his players at half-time, they need to keep the pace up if they are to knock opposition teams out of their stride. The pressing game is a crucial part of the England approach and the cooler temperatures at this tournament allows them to play that way without exhausting themselves.
Lennon looks back to his best The Spurs winger cut in from the right on more than one occasion, using his pace to cause chaos in the opposition's defence. When he is on form he is a real threat and his final ball was better yesterday.
Heskey is not an international goalscorer None of the four strikers had their best day but Heskey remains the biggest worry. Pairing him with Rooney in the second half suggest they could be the starting two for Capello on Saturday. Heskey's miss in the 67th minute did not inspire confidence that he is going to add to his seven international goals anytime soon.
King and Terry can play together Although they will need a rather more rigorous test than the one presented by the Platinum Stars forwards. King is a class act.
Joe Cole could be peaking at the right moment He looked more effective for England than he has for much of the season at Chelsea since his return from injury. A candidate to start on the left against the United States if Capello perseveres with Lampard and Gerrard in the centre of midfield.
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