The house built by Fabio Capello, which at times has looked so sturdy, was haunted here last night. The demon was the 44 years of failure he had promised to put right and the bitter truth for so much of a desperate night was that his team looked more in need of an exorcist than a manager.
Inevitably two questions challenged deeply the presumption that Capello, with his superb record, might just be able to exploit the strength of talent like that of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard. One concerned the true level of that ability when tested under maximum pressure. The other was about Capello's approach to these last few weeks of his huge challenge.
Had he really drawn the best from his players in this time of gathering tension? No one seemed to be asking this more intensely than Il Capo himself when in the closing minutes he put his hand on Gerrard's shoulder and beseeched some last, decisive effort.
He also sent on Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch in the sake of pursuit. But all the time the clock ticked down with a terrible implication. It was that England's hopes were draining away, that the pressure that first came on the high veldt six days ago was now maybe becoming too much to support.
England's first hint of cohesion took 30 minutes to arrive. It was a harrowing wait. No one expected instant, mauling power, not after all the uncertainties of the days that followed Robert Green's version of hari-kari and it didn't help that David James, whose own reputation for bedrock stability is not exactly legendary, punched his first tricky cross skywards.
It was not a satisfactory explanation, however, for the ineptitudes which disfigured the England opening so deeply until Gerrard and Rooney fashioned one move of relative sweetness. This wasn't infused with the any of the conviction that marks the work of both players when they are at their most impressive, but it had one supreme recommendation. Even though it faded at the moment of possible completion, it involved a little positive running, a hint of imagination and a pass that went successfully from point A to point B.
The two princes were supposed to be hearty royal cheerleaders, but it was hard to know who looked more depressed, William or Harry. William, as is his always decent, feeling way, looked embarrassed; Harry had the slightly sour look of someone waiting too long for the bubbly to be cracked.
But then if they looked somewhat less than properly engaged – and let's remember the royals are supposed to look rapt when inspecting a new sewage works, Capello's countenance simply did not bear close study. He walked off the field at half-time with his hands in his pocket and, surely, his heart in his boots.
Capello has been saluted for his ability to impose discipline, to set new standards of professional obligation, but not even his warmest admirers can ignore the fact that he is also obliged to put together some passable imitation of winning football.
In the first half there was a pitiable absence of any such product.
Most alarming of all was the sheer inertia of the two players who are supposed to be able to compete at the very highest level, which in the last few days has come to mean, more than anybody, Lionel Messi. Mentioning Rooney and Gerrard in the same breath as the little big man from Argentina sounded like a sacrilege as Algeria, fuelled by the midfield livewire from Wolfsburg, Karim Ziani, at times seemed a cool yard faster at every turn.
Capello was mostly enraged as England drifted further away from any sense that they had the means to inflict themselves seriously on the tournament. Gareth Barry was supposed to reintroduce some surety in midfield. Yet he was another creaking hinge. John Terry and Jamie Carragher seemed vulnerable to the pace of Karim Matmour and the desperation when he was brought down by the former brought another flash of concern to the face of Capello.
There was simply no point of encouragement for the manager at this point, only reasons for despair. Another came when Barry played a ball so guilelessly to Algerian feet, England were for a moment horribly exposed.
Algeria? They seemed unable to believe that they were running and passing so easily around a team spoken of as potential champions. Carragher conceded a free-kick on the edge of the box. England survived that crisis but the self-belief they need was still the wrong side of Table Mountain.
The last few minutes were excruciating. Capello looked as if he was ageing by the year not the minute. England crowded in for a last corner. It failed. They are now on the edge and with hardly a shred of belief in their ability to prevent the fall.Reuse content