England 1 Republic of Ireland 1 match report: England toil to dreary draw against moderate opposition with date with Brazil looming
Struggle for possession does not augur well for Roy Hodgson's hopes in the games that matter
Next stop, Brazil - although to watch England labour to a draw against modest opposition, the instinctive reaction was not that this was a team who should head straight to the Maracana stadium for a showdown with the greatest football nation on earth.
Nevertheless it is farewell, Jon Walters and hello, Neymar. The first full season under Roy Hodgson is one game from completion under the lights in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday but it is where they are heading in the autumn that will focus minds. There are two friendlies left until those crucial four World Cup qualifiers in autumn and by Monday there will be one - and it hard to imagine at this point that England will win all four of those qualifiers.
They were better in the second half, when Wayne Rooney had a greater influence on the match and the Irish tired. They might have won the game had Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and then Theo Walcott held their nerve when presented with chances in the last five minutes, yet against the team ranked 39th in the world it was not unreasonable to expect more from England. What is lacking is the promise of the kind of progress England need to get through the difficult World Cup qualifying group H.
As for the Brazil game on Sunday, the most immediate worry is the lack of options among Roy Hodgson's strikers. Daniel Sturridge came off injured and did not travel on the flight to Brazil. Jermain Defoe, who replaced him, is not completely fit and Danny Welbeck is “touch and go” to be ready to play. Oxlade-Chamberlain looked to be struggling, Even if Welbeck is fit, there will be only 16 outfield players available.
It was not how Hodgson would have wanted to end the season, patched up and clinging on for such a marquee game. He is already without Steven Gerrard, Jack Wilshere, Andy Carroll, Ashley Young, Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley and Kyle Walker but this is how it is with England at the end of May. He needs all his good fortune on player fitness for those four qualifying games - Moldova, Ukraine (away), Montenegro and Poland - that look ever more daunting.
The words that stung the most was Gary Lineker's tweet that Hodgson's 4-4-2 system was a “step back to the dark ages of 2 lines of 4”. The England manager unwittingly invited greater derision when he said afterwards that his team played 4-4-2 “the same way that Borussia Dortmund play 4-4-2”. It was that kind of night, although no-one, not even Hodgson, was quibbling that in the age of 4-2-3-1, this looked like 4-4-2.
At their worst, England were still committing the same old errors. They could not keep the ball for long enough against the determined Republic of Ireland. England played with two out-and-out wingers but gained little width. At their best they were simply not clinical enough to see off a side that included two players from the Championship and two whose clubs have been relegated from the Premier League this season just gone.
That is the concern for Hodgson on nights such as these when the precious minutes of game-time he has with his players trickle away without them giving him the assurance that come the big qualifiers they will be able to finish the job. There was an equaliser from that old dependable Frank Lampard after Shane Long had headed Ireland into the lead but for the most part this felt exactly what it was: tired, predictable and, from an English point of view, rather dispiriting.
Hodgson picked Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott to start, unusual given that he usually balances Walcott with the more defensive James Milner on the opposite side. It did not work out for either in the first half. Walcott got behind Stephen Kelly once in the 38th minute but could not pick out Rooney with the cut-back.
Hodgson lost Sturridge to what looked like an ankle injury after the half hour. He was carried off just as news of Luis Suarez's interview in Uruguay outlining his openness to a move away from Liverpool filtered through. All in all, not a great night for Brendan Rodgers. Sturridge had created England's equaliser and looked the most inventive threat for the home team.
England had started the match brightly but they conceded on 13 minutes to an extremely well taken header by Long that was guided across Joe Hart's goal and into the far left corner from Seamus Coleman's cross from the right. Long drifted across Glen Johnson who had played the striker onside, and Gary Cahill never even got close, but it was, all in all, a beautiful header.
For a while England could barely conceal their embarrassment and there was little of any note created other than a wildly struck Oxlade-Chamberlain shot from the left side. Then for the first time, Sturridge ran at the Irish on their left side and put in a cross that St Ledger badly miscued. Glenn Whelan did not react in time and Lampard tucked in the loose ball with the outside of his right foot.
There was time for one more head-in-hands moment at the end of the second half when Cahill and Michael Carrick left a free-kick to one another and almost created a goalscoring chance for Ireland.
It was a different story in the second half when England created their first chance three minutes after the break when Rooney found Walcott on the right and his cross was cleared under the bar by St Ledger, It was captain for the night, Ashley Cole, of all people, closing in for what would have been his first international goal in 102 caps.
Cole was later replaced by Leighton Baines. At half-time, Hodgson had replaced Hart with Ben Foster, his first appearance since November 2010 and Phil Jones in place of Johnson at right-back. The Irish had arguably their best period around the hour and their outstanding player, Coleman looked dangerous on the right.
There was a good break started by Oxlade-Chamberlain on 65 minutes that ended with a chance for Walcott. The two Arsenal men should have done better with opportunities in the last few minutes. “You'll never beat the Irish,” was the song from the away support which rang true once again, as it has done since 1985. As for England, they stagger on to the end of the season and beyond that, there can be no certainties.
Man of the match Rooney.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee W Collum (Scot).
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