Gerrard steps forward to shake England out of World Cup hangover

England 2 Hungary 1
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The Independent Football

Steven Gerrard saved Fabio Capello again last night, even though the England manager is giving the impression of a man who insists on blundering back towards the precipice every time someone hauls him away.

The two goals from Gerrard, and his eye-bulging, fist-clenched exhortation to the home crowd to shake themselves out of their World Cup torpor, were the golden ticket out of Wembley hell for Capello. Then he booked a one-way trip straight back into the mess by ending David Beckham's England career with a public pronouncement before he had contacted the player himself.

There is increasing evidence that Capello's lack of mastery of the English language is leading him places he would rather not go. That he blurted out the news that Beckham was now surplus to requirements in a pre-match interview without telling the player first was bad enough, that he then offered him a final farewell at Wembley suggested he was making it up on the hoof.

Beckham is not everyone's cup of tea but, after 115 caps, he deserved better than this. The Football Association did get a message to Beckham's representatives after the interview was recorded on Monday but there was no contact between Capello and the player. Yet for most of last night the Beckham issue was not Capello's most pressing problem.

Before Gerrard intervened, England looked like they were caving in again and this time to a team ranked 62nd in the world, one behind Benin. With an irony only England could endure, given the goal denied them against Germany in the World Cup, the goal Hungary scored last night – turned goalward by Phil Jagielka – did not cross the line. But by then Wembley was not in a forgiving mood.

With England a goal behind last night those FA men who made the decision to keep Capello in place in July might have had reason to change their minds. During those four days of "reflection" after the World Cup finals they decided that Capello was the man to take England forward. With Martin O'Neill looming behind Capello like Banquo's ghost they now have an available alternative.

Unfortunately for Capello last night, as against Germany in Bloemfontein, the refereeing was lousy. But equally the well of goodwill was running dry and the focus of the England support's frustration was Wayne Rooney.

Earlier in the game the fans had resisted the temptation to boo collectively. Instead factions had split over the likes of John Terry and Ashley Cole, whose various touches on the ball in the early stages were met by booing and retaliatory applause in equal measure. By half-time, with the game still without a goal, the team left the pitch to jeers.

When Rooney was substituted on 67 minutes he copped the worst of it. As he was booed, so other fans stood to applaud. The player himself turned to clap the fans. Was that a thanks to those who had backed him or one in the eye to those who had booed him? It was difficult to tell but, either way, the atmosphere was getting nasty.

Capello did not venture from his seat for the entire match and he did little more than raise an eyebrow when Adam Johnson side-footed the best chance of the first half over the bar. Equally the England manager did not react when either of Gerrard's goals went in, but he must have felt the relief because before then his team were in a very bad place.

Gerrard's goals were straight from the Liverpool captain's manual of heroic rescues. The first one looked like it was in when he drew back his right foot to shoot. The second was a lovely little improvisation at the near post that left three defenders bamboozled. Of course, this solves none of the deep-seated problems that continue to follow this England team, but it does put a little ointment on the wound.

The crowd of 72,024 speaks of the devotion to this benighted team. They did not all turn up to boo the team, although a lot of them must have ended up doing so nonetheless. By the end of the game they had seen four debuts – Bobby Zamora, Kieran Gibbs, Michael Dawson and Jack Wilshere – although no one could say it had been a new dawn.

Capello picked a 4-3-3 formation that looked more like 4-5-1 and was pretty close to the 4-2-3-1 system that lots of the players themselves wanted in South Africa. It is the flavour of the month and many of the team felt that Capello's failure to deploy it against Germany left the side too exposed.

It gave Walcott and Adam Johnson some space on the wings. Of the three non-World Cup players who started it was Walcott who looked the most impressive. His pace still has the capacity to surprise defenders. The problem is that the excitement as he accelerates is balanced by the anxiety about where his cross is going to end up.

Rooney put the ball in the Hungary goal within three minutes but was correctly judged to be offside. There are no guarantees that he will suit this formation in international football, given his propensity to blow up when outnumbered by defenders. By the end of the first half he had come down hard on the ankle of the defender Zoltan Liptak. For the second half England came out in a 4-4-2 formation with Zamora alongside Rooney.

England conceded when Zoltan Gera got away from Dawson and pushed it wide for Tamas Hajnal to cross. His ball was turned goalward by Jagielka's boot but Dawson cleared it off the line. The French referee and his assistants wrongly judged that it had crossed the line.

By the time Gerrard came off his goals had saved the day for England and he was applauded as if he had brought the World Cup home. He was replaced by Wilshere, who has ambitions to be a player of Gerrard's stature and will have learnt a lot from the captain's performance. Wilshere has time on his side, but you have to wonder if the same goes for Capello.

England (4-2-3-1): Hart (Manchester City); G Johnson (Liverpool), Jagielka (Everton), Terry (Chelsea), A Cole (Chelsea); Walcott (Arsenal), Lampard (Chelsea); Barry (Manchester City), Gerrard (Liverpool), A Johnson (Manchester City); Rooney (Manchester United).

Substitutes used Gibbs (Arsenal) for A Cole, h-t; Dawson (Tottenham) for Terry, h-t; Young (Aston Villa) for Walcott, h-t; Zamora (Fulham) for Lampard, h-t; Milner (Aston Villa) for Rooney, 67; Wilshere (Arsenal) for Gerrard, 82.

Hungary (4-4-2): Kiraly (1860 Munich); Szelesi (Olympiakos Volos), Juhasz (Anderlecht), Liptak (Fehervar), Vanczak (Sion); Huszti (Zenit St Petersburg), Vadocz (Osasuna), Elek (Videoton), Dzsudzsak (PSV Eindhoven); Rudolf (Genoa), Gera (Fulham).

Substitutes used Laczko (Debrecen) for Vanczak, h-t; Hajnal (Borussia Dortmund) for Huszti, h-t; Koman (Sampdoria) for Dzsudzsak, h-t; Komlosi (Debrecen) for Liptak, 55; Toth (Venlo) for Elek, 59; Priskin (Ipswich) for Rudolf, 82.

Referee S Lannoy (France).

Man of the match Gerrard.

Attendance 72,024.

England's good and the not so good at Wembley

The good...

Theo Walcott Like many wingers, Walcott – still only 21 – needs to feel confident and he received the required boost to his self-belief with two fine runs down the right, the second of them setting up a great chance for Adam Johnson.

Steven Gerrard Please don't say he doesn't care. Back in a central role he led from the front and dragged England back into the game just when it – and the crowd – were threatening to drift away. Two different, equally good, goals in four minutes.

Kieran Gibbs A young star of the European Under-21 Championship finals last summer, the Arsenal left-back came on for his senior debut at half-time and did not look out of place. Snappy in the tackle, and assured passing and crossing.

Joe Hart A nice, easy full debut in which he was barely required to make a save until Phil Jagielka deflected the ball away from him for the Hungarian goal. Began with a confident punch and went on to handle with conviction.

Bobby Zamora England's new 29-year-old hope started hesitantly and has yet to prove that he is really international class. But did enough with one fierce shot and two headers in 45 minutes to offer far more of a goal threat than predecessor Emile Heskey.

...and the not so good

Ashley Cole The Chelsea full-back, like his club-mates, was among those booed loudest and he found it impossible to win his detractors over. Unlike Walcott, he looked badly short of confidence as the right-winger Balazs Dzsudzsak twice cut inside him.

Gareth Barry Once again England's lack of a genuine holding midfielder was emphasised. That player would have sat on Zoltan Gera, operating just behind the main striker, but Barry, whose distribution was again poor, was neither fish nor fowl.

Frank Lampard One of few players who could hold his head up after the defeat by Germany, but in the 45 minutes he was allowed was unable to stamp his quality on the midfield and rarely pushed forward.

Adam Johnson It could have gone either way and might have been positive had he scored just a few minutes into his full debut. Instead a bad miss seemed to weigh heavily on him. A little better after switching to the right in the second half.

Michael Dawson After being dropped from the World Cup squad, then recalled without getting a game, he found himself behind Jagielka in the pecking order and was then caught out for the goal, if unlucky not to retrieve the error.

Steve Tongue

Did England solve their problems – on and off the field?

Is Fabio the right man for England or is it stupid to be thinking positively about Euro 2012?

Capello as good as admitted he had made mistakes by selecting four players who had not featured in South Africa. In particular, he changed the formation to a 4-2-3-1 with two wingers in Theo Walcott of Arsenal and Manchester City's Adam Johnson, two players he had left out of his final 23-man squad. Capello made further changes at half-time, blooding Michael Dawson, Kieran Gibbs and Bobby Zamora, but looked becalmed in the second half, showing little of the animated passion we saw in South Africa.

What kind of reception did they get – how noisy was the stadium?

There was some booing when the players' names were read out, with John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Gareth Barry all jeered, and the goalless first half ended with boos from all corners, but all in all the fans were surprisingly generous with their welcome.

How did the pitch hold up?

Surprisingly well, given that it was being used for the second time in three days following Sunday's Community Shield. The £250,000 spent of the radical semi-artificial Desso turf would appear to be money well spent, as the turf looked like the Wembley carpet of yesteryear from up in the stands.

How did Cole and Capello get on?

Ashley Cole appeared to snub Capello during the presentation after the Community Shield but the manager clearly did not hold a grudge, selecting the Chelsea defender for his 83rd cap. Cole, however, was perhaps given a glimpse of the future when 20-year-old Gibbs replaced him at half-time.

Can we rely on Rooney again?

Wayne Rooney was the single biggest disappointment in a long list of them following the World Cup. He occupied his favoured role at the point of the attack last night, with Adam Johnson and Walcott patrolling either side of him. He had the ball in the back of the Hungarian net inside three minutes, but knew he was offside. His substitution in the 67th minute was greeted with a mixture of jeers and cheers.

Who should be the next keeper?

Many experts thought Joe Hart should have been first choice heading into South Africa, and in his first start for the national side he did little wrong.

Who showed a bit of character?

Steven Gerrard was England's inspiration, digging his manager out of a hole with a great equaliser with 20 minutes left, and then conjuring up another goal four minutes later. Walcott and Adam Johnson were hungry for the ball, as was Ashley Young when he came on. It was a baptism of fire for Gibbs, but he handled it with aplomb.

Mark Fleming