Hope punctured as old frailties haunt Capello's new England

England 1 Wales 0

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It is one of those curious twists of fate that had the Wales striker Robert Earnshaw been capable of side-footing the ball into an empty goal from five yards out last night then Fabio Capello would be waking up this morning to a set of headlines arguably as hostile as those which followed England's World Cup exit last summer.

With England flagging badly in the second half, and their one-goal lead beginning to look precarious, the ball was headed down to the feet of Earnshaw in the home team's penalty area, with the goal at his mercy. Faced with the prospect of scoring one of the most famous goals in the history of Welsh international football, Earnshaw did what generations of his country's great fly-halves have done and stuck the ball squarely over the bar.

It was Earnshaw's Chris Iwelumo moment. Gary Speed, the Wales manager, looked like he might be sick. A small nation groaned. England, undeservedly, survived.

You could argue that Capello was due the good fortune; that all those World Cup injuries last summer and the Frank Lampard goal-that-never-was meant that on this occasion he deserved a reprieve. You could argue all that and more. But you would struggle to frame a convincing case that this was an England performance that said here was a team picking up speed for a tilt at winning Euro 2012 next summer.

Earnshaw let Capello's team off but had he guided the ball under the bar then the mood this morning would have been for a full-blown inquest into just how England had failed to beat their humble neighbours at Wembley. As it is, they just need a point against Montenegro next month to qualify for Euro 2012; that and a complete transformation of their confidence if they are to make that tournament worthwhile.

Whatever steps forward were made in Bulgaria on Friday were swiftly retraced last night. They had a relatively strong period of around 20 minutes at the end of the first half when Ashley Young scored the game's only goal. Otherwise even Capello was at a loss to explain what he saw as a lack of "confidence", especially he said, in the last 20 minutes of the game.

In Podgorica next month, Capello's players will probably perform much better – they usually do away from Wembley and have won every one of their away fixtures in this group. It is the size of their task in the tournament itself that is the bigger concern, one brought into focus by Spain's 6-0 victory over Liechtenstein last night, which seals their qualification for Euro 2012. And before you mock Liechtenstein's status in world football, it is worth pointing out that they are only two places beneath Wales in the Fifa rankings.

An equaliser for Wales would have been justice for their performance. England came alive at the end of the first half when, 10 minutes from the break, Young's winner was made by Stewart Downing, but for long periods of this match they were every bit as bad as their last outing at this stadium, against Switzerland in June.

The 4-2-3-1 formation that worked so well in Bulgaria – with just two changes to the personnel – succeeded only in isolating Wayne Rooney last night. It takes some doing to render Rooney ineffectual when he is in the kind of form he is at the moment, but England achieved it last night. Rooney momentarily lost his temper with his team-mates in the first half for failing to press the ball with him and it did not get much better.

Were there any bright points? Well, Downing looked dangerous cutting in on his left foot from the right wing and he gave Joe Ledley twisted blood in the process of creating Young's goal. Joe Hart looked solid in goal, as did John Terry and Gary Cahill, but were it not for that remarkable good fortune of Earnshaw's miss, the picture would look very different.

Speed also complained that Gareth Bale should not have been flagged offside five minutes after half-time when he was in the England penalty area. On a few occasions Bale trailed England defenders on his burst forwards but he did also resemble the most talented player in the schoolyard, trying to do it all on his own.

Speed played Bale on the right which meant he was up against the experience of Ashley Cole rather than, on the opposite side, Chris Smalling who was making just his second start for the England senior team. Bale had been absent in March for the game in Cardiff which Wales had started poorly and got progressively worse. Last night they demonstrated that they have made progress since then.

With Aaron Ramsey very tidy in possession, the Welsh also had in their favour the growing sense of disquiet among the England players as the game wore on and they failed to make inroads. James Milner was in the side in place of Theo Walcott, whose tight hamstring was considered too risky, and Frank Lampard replaced Scott Parker. Lampard, consigned to the scrapheap last week and risen from the international dead four days later, had one chance in the second half but the ball was caught under his feet and he shot over the bar.

After Young's goal, the expectation was that England would click into gear. Rooney should have got to Young's cross on 40 minutes but came up short. By half-time it seemed the pressing game Speed had encouraged his team to play might have drained them of the energy, but they fought back.

Capello's players were up against opponents whom they should have been able to dispose of simply. Once again it appeared that they did not know how to do so.

If the suspended Craig Bellamy had been available it might well have been a different story for Wales but it was their fate last night that they would have one chance and one chance only. On 77 minutes, the ball was headed down to Earnshaw by Darcy Blake and somehow the Cardiff striker got his foot underneath it. The moment was replayed twice on the stadium's big screens in the aftermath and both sets of supporters jeered and sighed at it all over again.

Wales had blown it. "Fourth in the world, you're having a laugh," sang their supporters. Some of their English counterparts booed at the end of the game. No one really went home happy, although at least Speed knows his team are heading in the right direction.

Man of the match Ramsey.

Match rating 5/10.

Referee R Schorgenhofer (Austria).

Attendance 77,128.