England stroll but Capello has work to do
Kazakhstan 0 England 4
It was the Kazakhstan fans who brought up the subject of Borat in the end, after five days of the English politely ignoring the fact that the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen had managed to turn their whole country into the punchline for his movie. At half time on Saturday the home fans unfurled a banner with Borat's face on it – the figure in question was being lynched.
Yes, you could say that they were pretty fed up with the whole Borat thing and, at last, this vast country in central Asia with its hijacked identity had the platform on which to answer back: a World Cup qualifier watched by the world, or at least the three million subscribers still getting Setanta Sports. That looked like job done for the Kazakhs, they had made their point and – let's be honest – that was more than their football team managed all evening in their crumbling Soviet-era stadium.
The lessons from England's performance were much harder to fathom. It is difficult to argue with maximum points from six qualifying matches and the most solid of starts to Fabio Capello's regime. At last this team can again face qualification for major tournaments with confidence. After Andorra on Wednesday, they play Croatia, Ukraine (away) and Belarus with the prospect of qualification for 2010 just two wins away.
This might have been a trickier prospect in less confident times under Steve McClaren. An opposition that went hell for leather for the first 25 minutes, a pitch that prevented the ball from being moved about quickly, a five-hour time difference that played merry hell with sleeping patterns and a general end-of-season, "what-the-hell-are-we-doing-in-Kazakhstan?" lethargy. It does not take much to nudge England off their rhythm and into disaster.
But who are we kidding? Three points against Kazakhstan is not exactly the basis upon which anyone can say with any certainty that Capello's team will go the distance in the World Cup finals next year. There were occasions when you wondered whether some member of this team were trying to get themselves dropped for the Andorra game, especially in the pretty woeful performances from Glen Johnson, Theo Walcott and Shaun Wright-Phillips.
"Sometimes we waited too much, not pressing," said Capello. "We have to go to the ball to make openings." And sometimes, Wright-Phillips, a half-time substitute for the ineffective Walcott, looked like he could not trap the ball even if he was given the entire landmass of this, the ninth-largest country in the world, in which to do so. In those first 30 minutes,England were so ragged that it was a relief to them when Kazakhstan's centre-forward, Sergei Ostapenko, had to go off injured.
"It's my job, it was the same for me at every team, you have to build confidence, the system, everything," Capello said. "I work every day, it is not finished – we are in the middle of the work. You have to work, work, work every day."
Except he can only work with the England players for the few days every couple of months that the domestic calendar permits him. And as a result this team is constantly trying to remember what values Capello taught it last time.
Yet it feels churlish to quibble with a team that has scored 20 goals in qualifying so far and won 4-0 after an eight-hour flight at the end of a long, tiring season. Still, England are still a long way from the team that might confidently go into a game against Spain or Argentina knowing they can out-play their opposition. They wore down Kazakhstan because once the home side had throw everything at them in the first 30 minutes, including an Ostapenko goal that was disallowed, they were knackered.
England played a lot through Frank Lampard who, unfashionable as the theory might be among the anti-Frank lobby, is becoming an ever more effective player under Capello. Alongside Gareth Barry as a holding midfielder he does not get forward as much, but he is a very neat passer and possibly the closest thing in terms of distribution that England have to a Xavi Hernandez or Andres Iniesta. The positioning of Steven Gerrard on the left side of midfield did not work, even if he did swap occasionally with Wayne Rooney to take on the role of the second striker. Only in the second half did England switch to a 4-2-3-1 system with Gerrard in the centre of that three and even then he looked less than interested.
Capello has found a job that suits each of his big players with one exception – it is Gerrard whom he finds hardest to find a home.
Rooney has eight goals in eight games and seems happy enough, his finish for his goal on Saturday – the team's third – was typical of this player's many qualities. He leapt horizontally to meet the rebound when his first effort was saved but when he connected with the ball the second time there was enough control in his shot to place it perfectly beyond the diving Alexandr Mokin in the Kazakhstan goal.
"It was a difficult pitch, a fast pitch and at times it was probably better to play the ball into feet rather than the space because it was kicking on a lot," Rooney said. "I was just a bit frustrated with the way we were playing at times but obviously at the end it has worked out for us."
Barry scored the first, which was an innocuous backpost header that knocked the stuffing out of Kazakhstan. Emile Heskey got the second after Mokin had only just saved a deflected shot. Lampard's penalty was the fourth England goal. It is still hard to work out the reason for David Beckham's new role as substitute. This was cap No 111 and all it involved was a few sprints down the right for 20 minutes and a lot of pointing.
"I think we are doing quite well but I thought we could have played a lot better at times," Rooney said and you had to agree with him. This was nothing like the brilliant performance in Croatia in September although England can only beat the teams that are put in front of them continuing with the hopeless Andorra on Wednesday. It is the teams that lie in wait for them in South Africa a year from now that make you wonder.
Kazakhstan (4-4-2): Mokin (Alma-Ata); Kislitsyn (Shakhtyor), Abdulin (Lokomotiv Astana), Logvinenko (Aktobe), Kirov (Alma-Ata); Averchenko (Kyzylzhar), Skorykh (Tobyl), Karpovich (Lokomotiv Astana), Kukeyev (Alma-Ata); Ostapenko (Alma-Ata), Nusserbayev (Ordabasy). Substitutes: Ibrayev (Tobol) for Ostapenko (27); Erbes (Vostok) for Averchenko (77)
England (4-4-2): Green (West Ham); Johnson (Portsmouth), Terry (Chelsea), Upson (West Ham), A Cole (Chelsea); Walcott (Arsenal), Barry (Manchester City), Lampard (Chelsea), Gerrard (Liverpool); Rooney (Manchester United), Heskey (Aston Villa). Substitutes: Wright-Phillips (Manchester City) for Walcott (ht); Beckham (LA Galaxy) for Johnson (76); Defoe (Tottenham Hotspur) for Heskey (81).
Referee: K Jakobsson (Iceland).
Booked: England Barry. Kazakhstan Nusrbayev, Abdulin.
Man of the match: Lampard.
England's remaining games: Wed Andorra (h), Wed 9 Sep Croatia (h), Sat 10 Oct Ukraine (a), Wed 14 Oct Belarus (h)
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