Who knows what Rio Ferdinand was thinking when that long ball looped over his head in the 13th minute. Maybe his mind was restlessly drawn back to his recent injury problems. Or perhaps he was mulling over whether he should go back to that Prestatyn caravan park on holiday. Or was he weighing up the potential benefits of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty?
Unfortunately for England, we can say with some certainty that Ferdinand was not entirely focused on where the ball might land, and the exact location of the striker Artem Milevskiy, who was in hot pursuit. Within 10 catastrophic seconds, Milevskiy was goalside of Ferdinand, Robert Green had brought the striker down and, after an initial mix-up, the Slovenian referee had dismissed the England goalkeeper.
It takes more than a year, and eight games, to qualify for a World Cup finals, but it is possible to get yourself knocked out of the tournament in about the time it normally takes Rio to say, "You've been merked." And merked England were on Saturday night by a Ukraine team who ended the visitors' run of eight straight qualifying wins and reminded everyone that England are still susceptible to big mistakes that have even bigger consequences.
Andrei Shevchenko might have missed the resultant penalty, but playing with 10 men against a stoked-up Ukraine team fighting for their place in South Africa next summer was always going to be a tall order. There were similarities to England's last World Cup finals match in Gelsenkirchen against Portugal when they mustered a fine effort with 10 men after Wayne Rooney's red card but paid the price for one terrible misjudgement.
The second-half performance from England was not bad at all, apart from the fact that when you need a goal, what is the point of playing Emile Heskey and then bringing on Carlton Cole? The former has seven goals in 57 caps for England; the latter has never scored for his country. Between them they are about as likely to score for England as the menfolk of Dnipropetrovsk are to pass a rule outlawing the mullet hairstyle.
Can Fabio Capello ever be expected to formulate a contingency plan in the event of one of England's loose cannons – such as Ferdinand and Rooney – losing the plot in a World Cup quarter-final? Probably not, but he does have a decision to make on Ferdinand, an outrageously talented defender who has, in this season alone, made far too many critical errors for it all to be a coincidence.
Against the Netherlands in August, Ferdinand presented Liverpool's Dirk Kuyt with the ball for the first goal in a 2-2 draw. For United against Manchester City, he gave the ball to Martin Petrov in injury time in the build-up to Craig Bellamy's goal to make the score 3-3. These kind of errors have been a feature of Ferdinand's game forever – even Sven Goran Eriksson dropped him for a World Cup qualifier in 2005 for slackness – but surely he should be doing it less these days, not more?
Ferdinand was initially shown a red card because the hapless Slovenian referee Damir Skomina was so off the pace he thought that the defender had brought down Milevskiy rather than Green. Capello was right to be scathing about Skomina because if it had not been for the England manager pointing out the error to the fourth official, the wrong man would have been dismissed.
In echoes of Sir Alex Ferguson's attack on Alan Wiley for failing to get close enough to the big decisions, Capello said: "The big mistake was from the referee. He decided the red card was for Rio. Rio was running two metres behind the ball. It was the keeper who was diving [at Milevskiy's feet]. This is a big difference. The referee was not close to the ball."
It was a farcical moment when Ferdinand was first shown the red card and had to point out, reluctantly, that the man who really should be dismissed was his team-mate Green, whom Ferdinand had put in trouble in the first place. If red cards were given for bad defending, then Ferdinand would have had more than one this season.
Ferdinand turns 31 next month and it would be such a waste if his form was to fall off a cliff like that of one of his England predecessors, Des Walker. For a while Walker was one of the greatest defenders in Europe until a chasing from Marc Overmars in a World Cup qualifier against the Netherlands in 1993 virtually ended his international career.
Rooney, who did more than anyone to plug the holes left by Green's dismissal and the sacrifice of Aaron Lennon so that substitute David James could come on, said that Ferdinand deserved the benefit of the doubt. "Everyone is going to talk about him because he made a mistake but he is a top defender," Rooney said. "There is no need to go on too much about it because everyone knows what you get from him."
Capello was equally sympathetic saying that "Rio made just one mistake". Unfortunately in international football, one is normally enough to lose you the game. "The ball bounced and he didn't judge the direction of the ball well, but afterwards he played a good game like the other players," Capello said. "He played a good game here and I'm really proud of what all the players did in the second half. Rio has made some mistakes, but you can't question his value."
That is the stock Capello defence but Ferdinand will only really know how his manager feels about him when he picks the team to play the final World Cup qualifier against Belarus on Wednesday, and then in the months to come. Ferdinand was not the only defender who erred. Ashley Cole messed around with the ball on 29 minutes out and lost possession. Sergei Nazarenko's shot went in off the full-back.
Rooney was magnificent but few of his team-mates were. Steven Gerrard suffered a groin injury that meant he had to be substituted at half-time. Michael Carrick conspicuously failed to shine. "I don't think there are many other teams who would have gone down to 10 men and fought to get back into the game the way we did even though we were already qualified," Rooney said. But then not many teams are capable of those moments of madness.
Ukraine (4-4-2): Piatov (Shakhtar Donetsk); Kobin (Shakhtar Donetsk), Khacheridi (Dynamo Kiev), Kucher (Shakhtar Donetsk), Rakytskyy (Shakhtar Donetsk); Gay (Shakhtar Donetsk), Tymoshchuk (Bayern Munich), Rotan (Dnipro), Nazarenko (Dnipro); Shevchenko (Dynamo Kiev), Milevskiy (Dynamo Kiev). Substitutions used: Yarmolenko (Dynamo Kiev) for Nazarenko, 67); Gusiev (Dynamo Kiev) for Shevchenko, 90).
England (4-4-1-1): Green (West Ham); Johnson (Liverpool), Ferdinand (Manchester United), Terry (Chelsea), A Cole (Chelsea); Lennon (Tottenham), Carrick (Manchester United), Lampard (Chelsea), Gerrard (Liverpool); Rooney (Manchester United); Heskey (Aston Villa). Substitutions used: James (Portsmouth) for Lennon, 15); Milner (Aston Villa) for Gerrard, h-t); C Cole (West Ham) for Heskey, 72).
Referee: D Skomina (Slovenia).
Booked: Ukraine Rotan, Kobin, Tymoshchuk, Khacheridi.
Sent off: England Green (13).
Man of the match: Tymoshchuk.
Rio grand? Five reasons why stylish centre-back will remain one of Capello's main men
1. He is still the most naturally talented defender in the team. There will be few defenders at next summer's World Cup finals who are more comfortable with the ball at their feet. Has 12 years' experience at international level.
2. The only central defender outside the team who can touch him for raw ability is Ledley King and he has not yet been fit enough for Fabio Capello to select him. The England manager clearly rates King – he called him into a squad in March – but his knees and hips would not stand up to the demands of tournament football.
3. The rest of the field behind King is not good enough. Matthew Upson is the favoured understudy but is unproven at the top level. Jonathan Woodgate is too injury-prone. Joleon Lescott is too inexperienced. Jamie Carragher has retired from international football.
4. Sven Goran Eriksson dropped Ferdinand for a World Cup qualifier against Austria four years ago following England's defeat to Northern Ireland. Having replaced him with Sol Campbell he brought Ferdinand back into the team for the next game.
5. Despite the public stance that everything is still up for grabs, Capello feels that much of his squad – and his team – is virtually settled for next summer. Ferdinand is a major part of that.
Kalachev shines too late for coach
England's next opponents, Belarus, added some respectability to their World Cup qualifying campaign with a 4-0 rout of Kazakhstan on Saturday, but it is unlikely to be enough to save their beleaguered coach Bernd Stange after an unsuccessful qualifying campaign.
Timofei Kalachev scored twice for the hosts in Brest with Maksim Bordachev and Leonid Kovel also getting on the scoresheet as Stange built some momentum ahead of his expected swansong at Wembley on Wednesday.
The result was vindication for the coach's decision to omit a number of players, including Stuttgart's Alexander Hleb and his brother Vyacheslav. Kalachev was outstanding and England will need to be wary of his shooting, the midfielder's superb 35-yard effort the highlight of the game.Reuse content