More questions than answers for Capello after England fail to convince
England 3 Mexico 1: King and Baines struggle but home side take advantage of poor Mexican defending
Fabio Capello will not be the first England manager who finds himself on the eve of a World Cup finals privately wondering why it is that his players seem so intent on posing him problems rather than solutions the closer that they come to the reckoning.
It was that kind of night at Wembley, one on which England won but still managed to send their supporters home with a few new anxieties to go with all the usual ones. Historically England teams have a unique knack of going off the boil when it matters most and as they applauded a half-empty Wembley last night everyone was thinking the same thing.
Can Capello iron out all the problems in the 19 days before they face the United States on 12 June? So many questions, so little time. The identical T-shirts that the Football Association gave every supporter meant Wembley had the appearance of a cult gathering. And usually at this point in the build-up to a major tournament everyone starts to believe the same thing: England can win it. But they were not thinking that last night.
There were holes in England's defence, even with Ledley King back after almost three years and, more critically, problems in central midfield. The England manager finds out today whether Gareth Barry is on course to make a recovery from his damaged ankle ligaments in time to be worth taking to South Africa a week today and after last night he will be praying for a positive report.
The pair whom Capello picked to protect his back four struggled at times, particularly Michael Carrick, who has a habit of looking queasy every time a great opportunity presents itself. Barry's injury is the kind of chance that Carrick has been waiting for but after nine minutes he gave the ball straight to Giovani dos Santos and never really recovered his composure.
The scorer of England's first goal, King looked flat-footed at times when confronted with the pace of Carlos Vela. At left-back Leighton Baines was exposed by the lop-sidedness of England's formation and did not cope as well as might have been hoped. The ball that Pablo Barrera slipped through his legs late in the game was the kind of moment that can change a manager's mind about a player.
Then there was Steven Gerrard, that riddle wrapped up in a mystery, inside an England shirt. Wandering in from the left side in the first half he looked out of sorts, then he had a nasty clash of heads and came back from treatment playing better. He was moved into the centre of midfield in the second half and was the game's best player – it was then you started to think that Gerrard might stay there if Barry does not make it.
Gerrard is the solution to so many of England's problems and yet, in the way that a succession of England managers have tried to shoehorn him into unfamiliar positions, he can also be the problem. When he was finally slotted into holding midfield he was excellent.
Having been selected ahead of Emile Heskey to start alongside Wayne Rooney, Peter Crouch scored his 21st goal for England with the kind of opportunism that has served him so well for his national team. He might have been offside when he put it in with his arm from a yard out but there is a good argument for saying that Heskey would not have been in the right place at the right time.
Swimming against a tide of Mexican dominance – they had the best of the possession by a long way – there were still some decent performances. Robert Green played the first half and was excellent – given the standard of defending, he had to be. Glen Johnson scored his first international goal with an improbable shot with his left foot which was good enough for the corporate brigade to vote him the man of the match.
Then, in the final minutes, the two wingers Adam Johnson and Aaron Lennon showed little bursts of skill and pace that lifted the heart. Had Johnson been more cynical he might have taken advantage of the Mexico defender trying to tear his shirt off his back and go down for a penalty but he is a still a relative innocent at this level.
Watching in the stands, David Beckham will have seen all this before. The hope mixed with fear and bewilderment as England stand on the brink of a major tournament still not sure of themselves. It is hard to believe that they will have sorted it all out in the space of games against Japan on Sunday and the less than formidable Platinum Stars on 7 June but Capello has achieved enough to expect the faith of the support.
For England's first goal, King reacted smartly to Crouch's back-post header on 17 minutes to guide the ball out of the reach of the Mexico goalkeeper Oscar Perez. He was not so sure-footed at the other end.
Later in the half he was badly stretched when Dos Santos combined with Vela to open England up. Baines struggled too and, with Mexico in control of the game, Carlos Salcido hit the post on 31 minutes. It was against the run of play when England scored a second a few minutes later. Rooney headed onto the bar from Gerrard's short corner and Crouch forced the follow-up over the line.
Mexico got the goal they deserved in first-half injury-time when King failed to get off the ground to challenge Rafael Marquez who headed the ball towards the far corner. Defending the post, Baines headed the ball three yards to the feet of West Ham's Guillermo Franco who scored with embarrassing ease.
Reorganised at half-time, England reacted immediately. When presented with an unpromising short pass by Theo Walcott out on the right, Johnson decided to run at goal himself and eventually beat the goalkeeper with a left-footed shot.
For all his extreme pace on the right wing, Walcott still drifted in and out of the game but, on the occasions he has the ball, you can see why Capello finds it so hard to resist leaving him out. Rooney was quieter by his standards, although he did thread a perfect ball on 66 minutes through to Gerrard.
With Gerrard in the centre, England looked more comfortable in the second half and comfortable is just about acceptable for now. But they will have to be much better than that in South Africa.
England (4-4-2): Green (West Ham); G Johnson (Liverpool), King (Tottenham), Ferdinand (Manchester United), Baines (Everton); Walcott (Arsenal), Carrick (Manchester United), Milner (Aston Villa), Gerrard (Liverpool); Crouch (Tottenham), Rooney (Manchester United). Substitutes used: Hart (Manchester City) for Green, h-t; Carragher (Liverpool) for Ferdinand, h-t; Defoe (Tottenham) for Crouch, h-t; Huddlestone (Tottenham) for Carrick, 61; Lennon (Tottenham) for Walcott, 77; A Johnson (Manchester City) for Milner, 84.
Mexico (4-3-3): Perez (Jaguares); Aguilar (Pachuca), Osorio (Stuttgart), Rodriguez (PSV Eindhoven), Salcido (PSV Eindhoven); Juarez (Pumas Unam), Marquez (Barcelona), Torrado (Cruz Azul); G Dos Santos (Tottenham), Franco (West Ham),Vela (Arsenal). Substitutes used: Hernandez (Manchester United) for Franco, h-t; Barrera (Pumas Unam) for Aguilar, 52; Guardado (Deportivo la Coruna) for Vela, 61; C Blanco (Veracruz) for G Dos Santos, 71.
Referee: M Toma (Japan).
Man for Man
Robert Green Two excellent saves from Vela to enhance prospects......... 8
Glen Johnson Easing his way back to fitness, then a stunning goal......... 7
Rio Ferdinand Says he is fully fit, but not at his best here......... 5
Ledley King Scored, but worrying lack of pace exposed......... 6
Leighton Baines Unable to stem dangerous attacks down his flank......... 5
Theo Walcott Some hard running to mainly good effect......... 7
Steven Gerrard Enjoyed second half in central position ......... 8
Michael Carrick Did not take chance to impress with Barry injured 6
James Milner Demonstrated versatility in centre and out wide......... 7
Peter Crouch Clearly ahead of Heskey now. He scores goals......... 7
Wayne Rooney Worked well with Crouch and Gerrard......... 7
Joe Hart: Held everything 7
Jamie Carragher: Kept line tight 7 Jermain Defoe: No chances 6
Tom Huddlestone: Won tackles 7 Aaron Lennon: One good run 6
Adam Johnson: Late debut n/a
Oscar Perez Lack of height a handicap.....................5
Paul Aguilar Pushed up right flank on Gerrard.....................6
Javier Rodriguez Made two fine saving tackles .....................7
Ricardo Osorio Adventurous centre-back did well......... 7
Carlos Salcido Good duel with Walcott, hit post......... ......... 6
Efrain Juarez Unable to exert much influence.....................5
Rafael Marquez Holding defender, made goal .....................6
Gerardo Torrado Some nice passes from the captain......... 7
Giovani dos Santos Former Spur imaginative in attack......... 7
Guillermo Franco Troublesome before injured.....................7
Carlos Vela Lively but denied twice by Green......... 7
Substitutes: Javier Hernandez 6 Pablo Barrera 6 Andres Guardado 6 Cuauhtemoc Blanco 7
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