Errors have been driving force in goalkeeping selections for years

David James is imaginative enough to believe in redemption, though even he would not have imagined that 43 days short of his 40th birthday he would finally make his World Cup finals debut.

James' curious brand of humour, which has had his England team-mates flummoxed at times over the past three weeks, would have given him a sense of the irony of the fact that he only happened to be the one having shots fired at him here last night because of Robert Green's professional misdemeanours. James was 32 before he made his own competitive debut for England and only did so then – in a Euro 2004 qualifier in Liechtenstein – because of David Seaman's howler, conceding direct from Artim Sikiri's corner against Macedonia the previous autumn.

James has been on the other side of the line, too; in need of redemption of his own. His own errors in Sven Goran Eriksson's side in Austria in September 2004 let Paul Robinson in and effectively ruled James out of competitive international football for four years, until Robinson stumbled towards Steve McClaren's final hurdle and Scot Carson committed the worst calamity of all against Croatia on a dark November night at Wembley three years ago. Wind back even further: Seaman only made it in after Chris Woods performed particularly badly for Rangers in an Old Firm derby the then England manager Graham Taylor was watching. Errors, it seems, have driven England's goalkeeper selections all along the last 15 years.

James' arrival back at the helm last night certainly made for one of the grimmest moments of Green's career – standing, arms folded on the goal line, as he watched goalkeeping coach Ray Clemence firing balls at his replacement, then being asked to blast a few in himself. As the players left the warm up, Capello's assistant Franco Baldini shook the hands of every one. For Green there was a pat on the back as well. He grimaced.

The spectacle – or absence of one – which unfolded in front of him may have told James not to hold is breath for a place in a World Cup quarter-final. With every minute that England's tournament seems so tense, it seems that the seclusion and the isolation of the build-up is affecting their joie de vivre in the same way that it did the Juventus side Capello played in, which was overwhelmed by the free-flowing, liberated Ajax side of the early 1970s.

Capello's language on the touchline told the story, though James' display told him that the manager had made one call right.

Algeria's attacking threat is constrained by the fact that they ostensibly lack a striker, though there were some audible gasps as the Jabulani ball, which is so difficult to judge from any distance more than 10 yards, squirmed around the England box like a bar of soap. The most awful moment, from England's perspective, arrived when the most potent threat in the Algeria side, Karim Ziani, raced behind Glen Johnson and levelled a cross which Jamie Carragher lunged into, applying a touch which seemed for an instant to spooling it past the goalkeeper. James held his nerve and his feet and collected. It was the nadir of a half which suggests Capello's side have descended to the depths of his era at its most critical moment. But James collected from Hassan Yebda's header, and calmly gathered a lofted corner from Nadir Belhadj.

Where Algeria lacked a striking threat, England made James' job difficult for him. To go with that Carragher first-half slice was John Terry's suicidal ball just past the hour. James' long and colourful history includes some advances from his line when staying put would have done, but he correctly advanced to that one. It wasn't a moment for the faint hearted. Words spoke louder than actions, too. The England players like James because of his presence and he showed why.

The outlook looked far chillier for Green when the night was over. At 30, he must look now to the 2012 European Championship campaign for his next chance to prove something to Capello, though Joe Hart will have something to say about that. Once the World Cup is over, Hart can expect a run in the Manchester City side as Shay Given completes his recuperation from shoulder surgery. But for now, James isn't letting the jersey go. "Being selected was nice," he reflected as he left the stadium. "I played the game so perhaps I'm the man in possession now. I don't know why [Fabio Capello] said there is fear in the side. It was more frustration than fear."

Deja Vu: England have been here before

All might not be lost for England, despite the two bore draws with which they have begun the current World Cup campaign. England have recovered from equally disastrous starts before

1990: Bobby Robson's team drew 1-1 with the Republic of Ireland and 0-0 with Holland, only to finish top of their group and end up reaching the semi-finals, losing to West Germany on penalties.

1986: England lost their opener 1-0 to Portugal and were held 0-0 by Morocco. They finished runners-up in their group and advanced to the quarter-finals, before losing to Argentina.

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