Fabio Capello's England squad is built around a core of players who were born roughly 30 years ago and for whom the first World Cup finals they can remember clearly was 1990 – when a generation of English boys were taught a sober lesson on the ruthless efficiency of German football.
From Joe Cole to John Terry; Frank Lampard to Steven Gerrard, the story of the semi-final in Turin in 1990 was their introduction to the cruel and varied ways in which an England team can fail heroically. As they watched last night in their hotel as Germany beat Ghana to win their group – and set up a tie against England in Bloemfontein on Sunday – the significance of a knockout tournament game against the Germans could hardly have been greater.
For the famous current English footballers born in the late 1970s and early 1980s, England may have the Euro 2000 win; the 5-1 victory in Munich in September 2001 and the triumph in Berlin in 2008, but the Germans will always have 1990 and the semi-finals of Euro '96. The current team reflects a more diverse nation, similar to modern England, but the old certainties about winning football matches seems to stay the same. They remain formidable.
Capello revealed after the game yesterday that he had all but abolished his rules banning alcohol in order to persuade his players to relax – even the night before games. It is a curiously old-school solution to an enduring problem with the England team and although it is hard to imagine that any of them did drink on Tuesday night the mood had certainly changed.
Capello's team overcame their inhibitions yesterday to beat Slovenia and put in arguably their best performance at a tournament since Euro 2004. Had they scored one more goal they would be facing Ghana on Saturday and then, for a place in the semi-finals, one from Uruguay and Mexico. Instead they have crossed to the other side of the tracks, and life there is not nearly so straightforward.
Given the chances that England created, it was a careless piece of work. Jermain Defoe's first-half goal would have won them Group C until in the aftermath of the final whistle in Port Elizabeth – as Capello high-fived Football Association officials on the pitch – Landon Donovan's goal for the United States 600 miles away in Pretoria changed everything. It is early days to be on collision course with the Germans.
At least England looked yesterday at last as if they had come to a World Cup finals in order to compete rather than to complain bitterly in private about each other and then go home. Capello might have failed to recognise the importance of a second goal that would have meant his team won the group on goal difference but he did at last coax a performance worthy of the name
There were half a dozen stand-out players: Gerrard, Lampard and James Milner among them, although few could better Terry who was at his belligerent, aggressive, stop-them-at-all-costs best. Terry has a remarkable capacity to forget the immediate past and march onwards and it was he who gathered the players at the end of the game in a huddle to shout whatever it is Terry shouts when he feels vindicated.
Milner was exceptional, especially in proving the old David Beckham rule that a cross hit early from the wing is worth 10 that are dithered over. His ball converted by Defoe on the volley after 23 minutes was followed by two more before the end of the second half that might have made goals. Milner was a brave choice after he had to be substituted for his own good against the US but last night he staked a claim to be one of the World Cup's brightest young stars.
If only it was as simple for Wayne Rooney who remains one of Capello's unsolved problem. He hurt his right ankle which required him to be substituted in the second half but unfortunately there is no treatment available between now and Sunday that will re-align his goalscoring instincts. Clean through on 58 minutes his shot was turned onto the post by the Slovenia goalkeeper Samir Handanovic when he really should have scored.
Rooney is still not right, he does not move around the pitch as he does when he is at his pin-sharp best for Manchester United, although even out of sorts he is still some player. He bypassed four Slovenia defenders with a clever pass in the area on 30 minutes that teed up Gerrard for a shot that Handanovic saved.
With around 20 minutes to go, and Rooney in need of replacing, Capello made the decision to shut the game down rather than try to score a second goal. He brought on Joe Cole for Rooney and then, even more inexplicably Emile Heskey for Defoe. It meant that Peter Crouch, his most regular goalscorer, was left on the bench and the likes of Joe Cole and Milner were encouraged to run the ball into the corner flags and keep it there. If it was a mistake then it was the only one that Capello made yesterday. His instincts were honed by Italian football and are therefore naturally conservative. He has seen his team miss enough chances by then and he was not prepared to take further risks.
As England's players left the pitch, Beckham stood by the entrance to the tunnel to congratulate each one as they left the pitch. A victory over a small mountain nation of 2m people has never felt so good for these players and Capello hopes that it will liberate them. Certainly England passed the ball better than they have in the last two games and they stretched the play.
There are some excellent young players in the current Germany team, although you get the feeling that if there is one advantage for England it is that perhaps they are catching Joachim Löw's side at the right time, just one tournament before they flourish into an outfit to compare with some of their predecessors. Mesut Ozil and Thomas Müller are fine players but they have nothing like the experience of Rooney let alone, the likes of Gerrard and Lampard.
If England's players need a first-hand account of that semi-final in Turin – and the 30th anniversary of the game falls a week on Sunday –then they need look no further than their coach Stuart Pearce. He missed the penultimate penalty in the 1990 semi-final shoot-out and still, one suspects, carries the scars.
Slovenia (4-4-2): Handanovic (Udinese); Brecko (Cologne), Suler (Ghent), Cesar (Grenoble), Jokic (Chievo); Birsa (Auxerre), Koren (West Bromwich), Radosavljevic (Larissa), Kirm (Wisla Krakow); Ljubijankic (Ghent), Novakovic (Cologne).
Substitutes Dedic (Bochum) for Ljubijankic, 62, Matavz (Groningen) for Kirm, 79.
England (4-4-2): James (Portsmouth); Johnson (Liverpool), Upson (West Ham), Terry (Chelsea), A Cole (Chelsea); Milner (Aston Villa), Lampard (Chelsea), Barry (Manchester City), Gerrard (Liverpool); Defoe (Tottenham), Rooney (Manchester United).
Substitutes J Cole (Chelsea) for Rooney, 72; Heskey (Aston Villa) for Defoe, 85.
Referee W Stark (Germany)
Man of the match Milner.
Bring on the Germans! But who are the main threats that will worry Capello?
England now play Germany on Sunday 3pm. After that, the most likely opponents are Argentina (quarter-finals), Spain (semi-finals) and Brazil (final).
1966: England 4 West Germany 2
Geoff Hurst's hat-trick carried Sir Alf Ramsey's men to glory at Wembley. But Germans still protest that his second goal never crossed the line.
1970: West Germany 3 England 2
England were cruising at 2-0 in Mexico but then Bobby Charlton was substituted. The Germans never looked back with Gerd Muller hitting the winner in extra time.
1990: West Germany 1 England 1
Gary Lineker took the semi-final the distance but the penalty curse began, Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle missing as Franz Beckenbauer's side went on to lift the World Cup.
The danger men
SV Werder Bremen
21-year-old left-footed, playmaker who links the midfield and attacks with good vision and sublime passing. Inspired Germany in their opening victory against Australia with an excellent performance and produced another match-winning display against Ghana last night.
32-year-old, Polish born striker. Had a poor domestic campaign for Bayern, scoring only three league goals, but repaid coach, Joachim Löw's faith by scoring in the opening game against Australia, but was harshly sent off against Serbia for two yellow cards. Certain to be recalled to lead the line against England
25-year-old, left-footed, Polish-born striker. Like Klose again, he had a poor season in front of goal for Cologne but was selected for the first group game due to his excellent scoring record for Germany. He duly obliged by scoring the opening goal of against Australia. Often pushed wide.
23-year-old, right-footed, central midfielder. Former captain of the under-21 team, he has benefited from Michael Ballack's injury – and has been compared by some to the Chelsea man. He plays in a central holding-midfield position along side Bastian Schweinsteiger. However, he does also look to get forward and makes well-timed late runs into the box.
Another assured display. Good early save from Birsa's long shot calmed the jitters. Caught pretty much everything there after. 8
Unlucky to be booked in second half for diving. As ever, looks better going forward than defending. 7
Fourth choice but a first-rate performance. Was not over-awed. Wonderful tackle in the last minute typified his display. 7
Led by example. Vital tackle to deny Ljubijankic. Needs to ensure he does not give away so many free-kicks. Almost scored. 8
Confirmed he is the best defender in the team, and not a bad attacker either. The Chelsea man did not put a foot wrong. 8
Inspired selection by Capello. Hugged the right touchline and delivered a Beckham-esque cross for Defoe's goal. 9
Did not seem happy out on the left flank but enjoyed a few great moments with his pal Rooney. Almost scored after 30 minutes. 6
Guilty of sloppy distribution. Poor shot with the keeper out of position. Redeemed himself with timely tackles and fine passes. 7
Nervous start but recovered well. Still gives the ball away far too often. Still not fully fit after his injury. 6
Barely touched the ball before scoring with an instinctive finish. Missed great chance straight after half-time. Otherwise he was excellent. 8
Much improved but still not totally convincing. His fitness is a concern, his desperation to score another. Hit the post. 7
Substitutes Joe Cole (on for Rooney, 72) Looked very rusty 5; Emile Heskey (on for Defoe, 85) Made his presence felt as England played for time 6.
England by numbers
4 England's goalscorer Jermain Defoe made only four passes in his 86-minute appearance against Slovenia.
1 England midfielder James Milner found a team-mate with just one of his nine crosses against Slovenia – that was the assist for Defoe's goal.
8 England have now not lost any of the eight matches in which Defoe has scored, winning seven and drawing one.
3 It is almost three years since England led at half-time and failed to win the game – the last time was against Russia in 2007.
1 Wayne Rooney has scored just one goal in his last 10 England games, and provided one assist.
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