James Lawton: Welbeck and Sterling strike up a very promising alliance

England had their disappointments at the end of a night that had promised so much

Waiting for Wilfried Zaha was, naturally, a matter of great compulsion. He may, after all, be a great player of England's future but when he came on with just five minutes to go, nobody needed to tell him that for a little while in his football life he was just another spectator.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic's fourth of four goals happened to deeply embarrass England's strangely uncertain goalkeeper Joe Hart but it will never be remembered for that. It was the workings of a genius that has never been the most accessible but never can it have been so persistently, and ungovernably, explicit. He has had many doubters in this land and all of us should today face life in a spirit of some considerable humility.

There were, of course, other reasons for a mood of sombre reality when we considered the prospects of the national team. If it was promising to be a good night for Roy Hodgson in his second home of Sweden, there was also the hope for a brief time of a bonus for those who argued that his familiarity with international football was a compelling argument for his appointment at one of England's lowest ebbs.

Friendlies are not supposed to matter these days. They are an unwanted intrusion into the relationship of Premier League clubs with some of their most expensive investments but the England manager, after his stints with Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates and Finland, knows that they will always be the lifeblood of a developing team.

They are about the attempt to fuse talent and character, to enhance understanding on these infrequent occasions a national manager gets to work with his team. This was no doubt the reason why he took what some club managers would have seen as the unmitigated liberty of keeping his original selection together for a whopping 60 minutes.

As it happened, there was a quite unimpeachable justification. It was that it gave young debutants Raheem Sterling and Steven Caulker more time to interact with potentially brilliant England allies in Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young, and the new centurion Steven Gerrard an extended opportunity – until the 75th minute – to remind us of his continued zeal on behalf of England.

But then of course the practicalities of Hodgson's existence – and his relationship with the paymasters of English football – could be pushed back only for so long. With 15 minutes to go, England had five new players on the field, including Ryan Shawcross plunged into the ordeal of fire provided by the ferocious Ibrahimovic scoring the second of his four goals.

Zaha arrived with just five minutes to go and with a brilliant passage of England play, in which Welbeck had been particularly impressive with his smooth and intuitive running, beginning to become a thing of beguiling memory.

For a while there had been the distinct impression of a coming together of both youthful ambition and impressive touch. Even the lordly impact of Ibrahimovic had been pushed into the margins with the fine goals of Welbeck and Caulker,

Yes, there was some clear light for England at the start of the long Swedish winter and, who knew, perhaps the arrival of such as Jack Wilshere and the hugely heralded Zaha might just have provided England with fresh confidence for something that is beginning to resemble quite menacingly a dogfight for World Cup qualification.

Hodgson, with only the shoot-out defeat to Italy in the Euro quarter-final in Kiev against his record, might have come away from Stockholm's celebratory unveiling of a new stadium still unbeaten over 90 minutes. Unfortunately, these hopeful projections had to be submitted for the approval of the extraordinary Zlatan. They were not so much declined as picked up, one by one, and cut into small pieces. As Gerrard said afterwards, you wreck any team's rhythm when you make more than three changes. England doubled that number and, as their captain also pointed out, the manager was under immense pressure to make changes. He said it more with sadness than anger, understandably enough. It means that last emotion should be reserved for all those who retain a genuine belief that the health and development of the national team is fundamental to the happiness of the football nation.

All of this, of course, could hardly have been more academic for Ibrahimovic. He is plainly aware that there are some in England who still consider him a hugely expensive and enigmatic superstar. If he has harboured any resentment during all those title-winning years with a roll call of some of Europe's greatest clubs, last night it found a perfect impression.

England had their disappointments at the end of a night that had promised so much more than an ultimately crushing defeat. For Ibrahimovic, though, it was anguish occurring on somebody else's planet. On his own, he was the master of all he surveyed and plundered.

Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'