Dire England in chaos – and with one last shot at salvation
Somewhere along the road from Andorra to Croatia, Ukraine and all places in between, Fabio Capello has lost the team that qualified for this World Cup in such decisive style and has in their place the insipid side of England past: the team of Euro 2008 failure, of big tournament paralysis and of the wasted golden generation.
Last night England were the nation's collective worst nightmare, a sleepwalking shambles who are now third in group C and must face up to the prospect of World Cup elimination. They must beat Slovenia on Wednesday in Port Elizabeth to be sure of reaching the second round and to retain a chance of finishing top of the group. All we know of that is that nothing is certain any longer.
Protesting fans invading the dressing room, Wayne Rooney losing the plot on the pitch and Capello at a loss to explain his team's collapse in form. Not for the first time the England camp feels like a ransacked town, its buildings burning and its people fleeing. Lest we forget, England are not yet out of this tournament although at times last night it felt as if they were. It felt as if they should be.
No player embodied the team's desperate lack of form more than Rooney, a man whose golden touch has simply disappeared in recent weeks. As he left the pitch Rooney mouthed into the ITV cameras: "Nice to see your own fans booing you – if that's what loyal support is for fuck's sake." Thus confirming that it was not just his form that has deserted him but his judgment, too.
This was one of those occasions when the booing was not the bullying, unpleasant kind that has been heard at Wembley in recent years. Rather it was the outpouring of national despondency. A kind of grief at watching a team disintegrate in the traditional English fashion and in spite of the famous £4.8m a year Italian coach on the touchline.
That does not justify the actions of the supporter who forced his way into the England dressing room at the end of the game to make his feelings known to the players. But there is no doubt that there are some hard questions to be asked and those start with Capello.
Last night, just two games into this World Cup campaign, and on the occasion of his 64th birthday, England's Italian coach was asked whether he will resign if his team do not make it out of group C on Wednesday. This would have been considered absurd just eight days ago but Capello gave it some thought before he answered that it was "too early" to talk about that.
Capello's grasp of English is hit and miss but sometimes he stumbles across the profound in spite of himself. When he said last night that he "didn't know this team" he struck on something that rang true. How can England's players, these titans of the modern Premier League, conspire to play so badly in tournaments? What is the problem so deep that not even an Italian coach with a box full of medals can solve?
When you sifted through the debris there was so little about this performance from which England could take heart. Against the United States last Saturday there were fragments of promise; last night there was just a mess. Ashley Cole, Budweiser's man of the match, simply said, "It could have been worse."
Indeed, they could have lost. Cole and Glen Johnson were the only ones who emerged with any credit. Rooney was dreadful. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard passed the ball woefully. They presided over a tempo that was non-existent in the first half and barely created a chance in the second.
As for Emile Heskey, it is hard to see what he offers to this team that Peter Crouch does not. Certainly not the defence-stretching runs that we hear about so often. If this is him supposedly getting the best out of Rooney then England really are in trouble. England need to score at least one goal on Wednesday and the obvious answer is Crouch. Unfortunately Capello seems in denial about the Tottenham striker's international goalscoring record.
Watching Capello progress from rage in the first half to limp despair after the break you had to worry that this was a man clinging grimly to the hope that his Plan A works because there is no alternative. It took him until after the hour to replace Aaron Lennon with Shaun Wright-Phillips and Jermain Defoe and Crouch got even less time. All the while Capello ignored the basic truth that it was Rooney who deserved to be replaced.
It took England 29 minutes and 36seconds before they struck their first shot on goal from Gerrard, a low skimmer that was no danger. England's best chance of the game was a weak effort from Lampard that was pushed around the post by the goalkeeper.
Had Algeria the courage to try to score a goal this might have been so much worse for England. As it was, David James, called back by Capello in desperation, was not tested. Even so, his first touch was a heart-stopping punch that went straight up in the air.
There are more decisions facing Capello who has lost his third centre-back of the tournament for the Slovenia game. Jamie Carragher picked up his second booking which means that it will be either Matthew Upson or Michael Dawson on Wednesday. On reflection though, that will be the least of his worries. He has to remodel this team, rediscover its spirit, overhaul it in the space of four days.
But by the way Capello was talking last night, it sounded like he might have accepted, like so many of his predecessors, that the problems run too deep to be rescued. That they are insurmountable.
England (4-2-3-1): James (Portsmouth); Johnson (Liverpool), Carragher (Liverpool), Terry (Chelsea), A Cole (Chelsea); Lampard (Chelsea), Barry (Man City); Lennon (Tottenham, S Wright-Phillips, Man City, 62), Rooney (Man United), Gerrard (Liverpool); Heskey (A Villa). Substitutes used: Wright-Phillips (Man City) for Lennon, 63; Defoe (Tottenham) for Heskey 76; Crouch (Tottenham) for Barry, 83.
Algeria (3-4-2-1 ): Bolhi (Slavia); Bougherra (Rangers), Belhadj (Portsmouth), Yahia (Bochum); Kadir (Valenciennes), Yebda (Portsmouth), Lacen (Racing S), Halliche (Nacional Madeira); Boudebouz (Sochaux), Ziani (Wolfsburg); Matmour (Borussia M).
Referee: R Irmatov (Uzbekistan).
Can England qualify?
If England beat Slovenia, they will progress, though if the US also beat Algeria and maintain their current superior goalscoring record on England – they have netted twice more – then England will go through as runners-up in Group C to play the winners of Group D. Serbia's defeat of Germany yesterday may have worked in England's favour – meaning they are more likely to face Serbia or Ghana in the last 16. If the US and England both win and have the same goals tally, first and second place will be decided by lots.
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