Johnson steps into the breach to give Capello breathing room

Switzerland 1 England 3

It took Wayne Rooney just seven minutes last night to remind us that there is more to this man than the tabloid caricature and that big empty Cheshire mansion of his with all the lights turned off.

It was his first goal for England in just short of a year, his first in open play since March and, above all, something to talk about other than the very public set of marriage problems he is walking back into this morning. For today at least, the headlines that proclaim "Rooney scores away from home" will be the kind he actually feels like reading.

Rooney does give the impression at times of leading a chaotic life in which his flaws are set in perpetual conflict with his very many qualities. But there are some things that you can rely upon from the 24-year-old man-child and among them is the certainty that whatever controversy rages around him, he deals with it most effectively on the pitch.

Rooney will steal the headlines today because, well, he always does. But when we set aside the feelings of Coleen Rooney that have become such a matter of national concern, there was much else of note that was not germane to relations in the Rooney marital home. This was a performance from Fabio Capello's team that has not been bettered since the 5-1 defeat of Croatia at Wembley 12 months ago.

In fact, it was exactly the way in which the England manager rather hoped his team would play in South Africa. They were fluent, well-organised and passed the ball well at times in the first half, including one move that swung from left wing to right and back again and –but for a Swiss intervention – might have provided the most memorable goal of Capello's reign.

In Adam Johnson, a goalscorer for the second time in two games, there was evidence that England have unearthed a player who will go on to have a significant international career. Johnson came on for the injured Theo Walcott within the first 10 minutes and, despite the occasional misjudgement that prompted Capello to roar at him, looked like he has a case for promotion to the starting XI.

The fifth- and sixth-choice central defenders Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott played with authority; Steven Gerrard was excellent and James Milner tireless. You have to wonder how much of a consolation it is for Capello that this is all coming together nicely about three months too late for the World Cup finals. At least the heat is off him for now.

Unfortunately, the spectre of South Africa hangs over everything this team does, especially on a night when they utterly dominated a country ranked higher by Fifa than every one of those sides England played in that wretched group stage of the World Cup. Capello's theory is that his players are fresher in the autumn than the shadows who turn up for the big summer tournaments.

It will take a lot longer to forget the aberration of England's South African excursion, but a performance like last night's was a start. As for Rooney's relationship with the England supporters it seems to have been repaired by the reporting of his mishaps over the last four days. Every football fan loves an underdog and, in a strange way, that was how Rooney was cast last night.

Bad news for Walcott, although, considering he was carried off on a stretcher, his injury is not as calamitous as might have been expected. If Adam Johnson is also fit for the game against Montenegro next month, then Walcott might not shift him. As for Frank Lampard, it is not unimaginable that he too might struggle to work his way back into this 4-4-2 formation, harsh though that seems.

Switzerland are a poor team but Capello's side have played worse against inferior sides. They took the lead in the seventh minute through Rooney, a joyously simple goal that also came with a casualty. Walcott started the move on the right and played in Glen Johnson, who got round his defender. His cross was tapped in by Rooney but not before a lunge for the ball from Steve von Bergen connected with Walcott's ankle.

You expected some kind of primal release from Rooney, but the celebrations were low-key by his usual slide-on-the-seat-of-his-shorts standards. On the turf by the near post, Walcott never got to his feet again. He was carried off down the tunnel. Sad for Walcott, but England barely missed a beat.

There could have been four more goals that half, all of them from Defoe, who was close so many times. The worst miss was when Adam Johnson, having bamboozled Reto Ziegler, crossed on 21 minutes and Defoe volleyed over. England should have killed the game off before the break.

Switzerland finished the game with 10 men after Stephan Lichtsteiner picked up a second booking on 65 minutes for a clumsy trip on Milner. A few minutes later, Gerrard opened up the Swiss defence to allow Adam Johnson to run on goal. It was a very mature finish, the Manchester City winger switching to his left side to beat the goalkeeper Diego Benaglio and scoring from a tricky angle

The Swiss were better in the second half and at the height of their pressure a cross from England's left flank went dangerously through a crowd of English players before popping out the other side. The Swiss goal that brought the game back to 2-1 was a beautiful hit from the substitute Xherdan Shaqiri that was past Joe Hart before he had time to react.

The England goalkeeper was not quite as assured as in his performance against Bulgaria. His handling was a little suspect at times and he tended to come round the ball to strike it with his right foot, which made his kicking less effective. By the time Shaun Wright-Phillips came on for Rooney with 11 minutes left, Hart was one of six Manchester City players on the pitch.

It was Darren Bent, on as a substitute for the injured Defoe, who scored the third when Cole played him in with six minutes left. At the final whistle, the England players turned to their travelling support and applauded them with the confidence it would be reciprocated. It has been a while since they have been able to do that.

Switzerland (4-4-2): Benaglio (Wolfsburg); Lichtsteiner (Lazio), Von Bergen (Cesena), Grichting (Auxerre), Ziegler (Sampdoria); Degen (Young Boys), Inler (Udinese), Schwegler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Margairaz (FC Zurich); Frei (Basle), Derdiyok (Bayer Leverkusen). Substitutes used Shaqiri (Basle) for Margairaz, h-t; Streller (Basle) for Degen, 64; Costanzo (Young Boys) for Schwegler, 83.

England (4-4-1-1): Hart (Manchester City); G Johnson (Liverpool), Jagielka (Everton), Lescott (Manchester City), A Cole (Chelsea); Walcott (Arsenal), Barry (Manchester City), Gerrard (Liverpool), Milner (Manchester City); Rooney (Manchester United); Defoe (Tottenham). Substitutes used A Johnson (Manchester City) for Walcott, 13; Bent (Sunderland) for Defoe, 71; Wright-Phillips (Manchester City) for Rooney, 78.

Referee N Rizzoli (Italy).

Man of the match A Johnson.

Attendance 39,700.

Group G

Results so far Montenegro 1 Wales 0, England 4 Bulgaria 0, Bulgaria 0 Montenegro 1, Switzerland 1 England 3.

England's remaining fixtures 12 Oct Montenegro (h); 26 Mar 2011 Wales (a); 4 Jun Switzerland (h); 2 Sep Bulgaria (a); 6 Sep Wales (h); 7 Oct Montenegro (a).

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