When Fabio Capello took the England job he was asked to make this dysfunctional team play like the sum of its parts. Last night you could not deny that Wayne Rooney looked like the Rooney of Manchester United or that Frank Lampard was indistinguishable from the Lampard who plays for Chelsea. As for Emile Heskey, he did not look himself at all – he played more like a latter-day Marco Van Basten.
If we did not know better then it would be possible to get a bit carried away with this new England team under Capello. They have four wins out of four in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, which is a record for any England team in a World Cup qualifying campaign, and this was as smooth and assured a performance as the victory in Zagreb last month. Two goals for Rooney, plus the opener from Steven Gerrard, and a win over the kind of side that were skilful enough to have embarrassed a more nervous England team.
All hail Il Capo for that. England teams of the past have conceived of countless different ways of tossing away leads, squandering winning positions or letting nerves take hold. Now under Capello, this England team seems to get stronger in the second half. Last night Capello revealed that he had made a subtle change at half-time, asking Gerrard to mark the veteran holding midfielder Alex Kulchy whose passing had proved so effective in the first half. Belarus lost their rhythm and England's grip on the game grew tighter.
It was the kind of tactical sleight of hand that has, in the recent past, more often been used by opposing managers than the one in charge of England. Early days yet but the pressure on this England team has lifted as they approach the friendly against Germany next month with a better record in qualifying than their old enemies. This time two years ago, McClaren was already under pressure in Euro 2008 qualifying. The big question now facing Capello is where he fancies spending his Christmas holiday.
What about the Gerrard conundrum? In the space of one match he went from goalscorer to a good 20 minutes of tactical fecklessness and then back to being the key man again when he was told to mark Kulchy. No-one could claim that on this basis Capello has got it nailed as to where exactly this luminous, free-spirited player would be best deployed but there were some interesting ideas. Nevertheless his goal on 12 minutes was a pretty good answer to Gerrard's own fears about whether he should be in the team.
Out on the left, Gerrard had played an indifferent 12 minutes until he advanced as Rooney dribbled a loose ball around the edge of the Belarus area. As the Manchester United man appeared to be gaining control of the ball, Gerrard arrived stage left and, without breaking stride, struck a masterful side-foot shot with his right that found the Belarus goal from 31 yards out.
It was not entirely deserved given how well Belarus had passed the ball in the opening stages and they only got better in the first half. Their manager, Bernd Stange, said that his side's first half was the best they had ever played under him and they were helped by the giddy aspect of Gerrard who, for 15 minutes after his goal, could rarely be found anywhere near the left wing. Belarus proceeded to exploit his absence ruthlessly.
It was easy to see why Capello had compared Belarus to Arsenal. The intricacy of their passing was breathtaking at times and, rather like Arsène Wenger's team, they also had a fragility that seemed to betray some of their better moves. Had England scored a goal like the one they managed on 27 minutes, we would have been heralding a new era of pass and move in Capello's team. Belarus had strung together 21 passes while advancing to the edge of England's area where Vitaly Kutuzov played in Igor Sasevich along England's delicate left flank and, as the Chelsea defender Wayne Bridge slipped, he crossed for the unmarked Pavel Sitko to head in.
That could easily have been the point at which England collapsed, which they certainly have done in the past, but instead that hitherto elusive ability to play under pressure became evident. The chief grafter was none other than Emile Heskey who worked harder than ever to occupy the Belarus defence and was always on hand to offer a target for the long ball out. At every point of his recent international rehabilitation you might have expected Heskey to revert to type and start falling over pointlessly but so far his performances have been beyond reproach.
When he made the second goal for England – which was Rooney's first – the England fans broke into that song currently popular at Wigan Athletic: "There's only one Emile Heskey, he used to be shite, but now he's all right". It is difficult to know whether Heskey should be pleased about it or not but there was no doubt that in the second half he became England's best player.
The second goal came five minutes after the break, made by the strength and perseverance of Heskey. The striker positioned himself brilliantly to receive a throw-in on the left side, deep in the Belarus half and from then on his power took him along the byline past Dmitry Verkhovtsov and Igor Filipenko. At one point it looked like he had delayed too much his chance to pass to Rooney but, when it came, the cut back was unmissable.
Heskey eventually gave way to Peter Crouch and Theo Walcott, who had struggled to make an impact, was replaced by Shaun Wright-Phillips. Rooney dropped into the left side of midfield to cover for Gerrard. England's third goal was a peach. On the edge of the area, Bridge found Rooney, he passed to Gerrard and the United striker took the return. From there Rooney dropped his shoulder to beat the defender and chipped the goalkeeper Yuri Zhevnov.
David Beckham came on for his 107th cap, passing Sir Bobby Charlton's record of 106 and coming within one of Bobby Moore's record of 108 – which will not please the traditionalists, especially as he spent about three minutes on the pitch last night. Gerrard hit the post when he had gone past Zhevnov. England, meanwhile, have some cause for hope although regaining their reputation might take a little longer.
Belarus (4-1-3-2): Zhevnov (FC Moscow); Omelyanchyuk (Terek Grozny), Filipenko (Spartak Moscow), Verkhovtsov (Naftan Novopolotsk), Molosh (BATE Borisov); Kulchy (FC Rostov); Stasevich (BATE Borisov), Putilo (Hamburg), Sitko (Vitebsk); Kutuzov (Parma), Bulyga (FC Vladivostok). Substitutes used: Strakhanovich (FC MTZ-RIPO) for Kutuzov (77), Rodionov (BATE Borisov) for Putilo (67), Hleb (FC MTZ-RIPO) for Stasevich, 90.
England (4-4-2): James (Portsmouth); Brown (Manchester United), Ferdinand (Manchester United), Upson (West Ham), Bridge (Chelsea); Walcott (Arsenal), Barry (Aston Villa), Lampard (Chelsea), Gerrard (Liverpool); Heskey (Wigan), Rooney (Manchester United). Substitutes used: Wright-Phillips (Manchester City) for Walcott 68, Crouch (Portsmouth) for Heskey 70, Beckham (LA Galaxy) for Rooney, 87.
Referee: T Hauge (Norway).
Man of the match: Heskey.
Yuri Zhevnov 7; Sergei Omelyanchuk 6, Egor Filipenko 6, Dmitri Verkhovtsov 6, Dmitri Molosh 7; Alexander Kulchy 7; Igor Stasevich 7, Anton Putsilo 5, Pavel Sitko 7; Vitali Kutuzov 7, Vitali Bulyga 7. Substitutes: Vitali Rodionov (for Putsilo, 67) 5, Oleg Strakhanovich (for Kutuzov, 77) n/a.
Star man: Alexander Kulchy Involved in most of Belarus's better moves. Less influential after Gerrard switched to contain him.
World Cup qualifying Group Six
Results: Kazakhstan 3 Andorra 0; Ukraine 1 Belarus 0; Andorra 0 England 2; Croatia 3 Kazakhstan 0; Andorra 1 Belarus 3; Croatia 1 England 4; Kazakhstan 1 Ukraine 3; England 5 Kazakhstan 1; Ukraine 0 Croatia 0; Belarus 1 England 3; Croatia 4 Andorra 0.
England's remaining fixtures: 1 Apr 2009 Ukraine (h); 6 June Kazakhstan (a); 10 June Andorra (h); 9 Sept Croatia (h); 10 Oct Ukraine (a); 14 Oct Belarus (h).
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