Sam Wallace: It is a fact that England are a better side when Crouch partners Rooney
Monday 07 June 2010
To the Ruimsig stadium in Roodepoort on Saturday, where the England camp dispatched the world's most famous scout to watch Australia's friendly with the United States. That was David Beckham in his new role as player liaison, US football expert and sidekick for Fabio Capello's tireless general manager Franco Baldini.
As the crowd became aware that Beckham was in the stands, their attention to matters on the pitch wavered and, before the final whistle, he had made one of those celebrity exits. Now you see him. Now you don't.
What did the two of them learn over 90 laborious minutes in the winter sunshine outside Johannesburg? First of all, that if Australia make it out of Group D to face – potentially – England in the last 16, it will be some sort of miracle. As for the US, they are a neat and tidy team, although very different to the accomplished-passing Mexico side that England played this month at Wembley by way of preparation.
But if the US have a vulnerability – and this may well be a flaw from which many sides suffer in this tournament – then it is the cross whipped in from the wing. And, as they failed to deal with one after the other, the name mentioned repeatedly among those of us watching was that of Peter Crouch.
It is a personal view that Crouch should require no further justification to start for England ahead of Emile Heskey against the US on Saturday. His record of 21 goals in 38 caps demonstrates that he will score goals; that he has 17 in 18 starts proves that he is more likely to score if he starts alongside Wayne Rooney than comes off the bench.
That is not to say that Crouch, in spite of his height, is a player who relies upon headed goals. Some of his best goals have been with his feet. His dribble through the Manchester City midfield in the second half of that Champions League qualification decider in May demonstrated his lightness of touch. But sometimes the obvious needs to be said, and what was obvious from the US performance is that they struggle against an aggressive presence in the air.
In defence of the Australian striker Josh Kennedy, who led the line against the US, he surely cannot be as poor as he was on Saturday, but even he still managed to cause the Americans problems. They played Jay DeMerit of Watford alongside Clarence Goodson in the first half and brought on the Milan defender Oguchi Onyewu in the second half and never looked assured.
The other big problem for the US was the new "Jabulani" World Cup ball, which is evidently a disaster for the goalkeepers in this tournament and will be a major issue come Saturday, with altitude also playing a part.
It will, of course, also be a problem for strikers trying to get their head to it, as well as the defenders and goalkeepers trying to clear, but it is attacking teams that will benefit most from the chaos. The criticism levelled at the ball from the US goalkeeper Tim Howard was profound and, for a national side who are relentlessly on-message, quite outspoken.
Asked what kind of deviation the ball made in its flight Howard replied, "'What doesn't it do?' would be a better question. It moves all over. If you hit five balls with the same striking motion you wouldn't get the same result. The defenders are struggling. It's hard to read. So we just have to get the ball from harm's way.
"It's terrible. You will hear that a lot next month. But it is what it is. We are trying to get used to it, trying to read an unreadable situation. Hopefully it's not going to come back and bite us but you are going to see some crazy things with the ball."
That sounds to me like a goalkeeper who does not want to be put under pressure and that is a job better done by a player who, in Crouch's case, averages a goal every 100 minutes on the pitch for England than, as in Heskey's case, one who scores once every 468 minutes on the pitch.
Heskey is a striker of merit and has had some great games for England but the theories for playing him become increasingly weird and wonderful. He does not score goals and he started one of the last ten games of the season for Aston Villa. Even the defence that he brings the best out in Rooney does not stack up any longer.
Under Capello, Rooney has scored nine in nine games starting with Heskey, and Heskey himself has scored two. That averages at 1.2 goals per game. Starting with Crouch on three occasions under Capello, Rooney has scored twice and Crouch three times – an average of 1.6 goals a game. Rooney might have scored more with Heskey but England as a team have done better when he plays with Crouch.
Marcus Hahnemann, the US reserve goalkeeper who played the second half on Saturday, said afterwards that the new ball meant "there will be goals scored from 45 yards at this World Cup." With a get-your-excuses-in-early flourish he added: "They will be called great goals but they won't be great goals, it's just the ball."
Neither Crouch nor Heskey are masters from long range but it is clear that this World Cup will be a tournament with plenty of goals. England need a striker who has a record for scoring them.
Redknapp's radio jibes find their intended target
That old Fabio Capello-Harry Redknapp feud that began after the Czech Republic game in August 2008 and continued over Ledley King shows no sign of ending, and the England manager seems a little touchy on the subject. Capello was asked last week about Redknapp's comments on Talksport that Tom Huddlestone and Michael Dawson were made to feel like outsiders before they were cut from the final World Cup squad (and in Dawson's case reinstated).
"I didn't hear the radio [programme] when he said that," snapped back Capello. No one had mentioned that Redknapp said it on the radio.
Fans weigh in with another heavy blow to McCarthy
The best new chant of the World Cup concerns West Ham's Benni McCarthy, South Africa's star player who has been controversially left out the squad because he is – to put it bluntly – just too fat.
A sometime musician, McCarthy had a hit with Shibobo (which translates as the football term for a nutmeg) with the band TKZee, the key lyric of which was "Benni's in the area", a play on his goalscoring prowess. Having seen him in their national team's new tight-fitting jersey that has been changed by the South African fans to "Benni's in the cafeteria".
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