Reservations about reserves

Hmm… hardly convincing was it?

England beat Belarus 3-0 last night – without Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole, David James and Emile Heskey – who have played in most of England’s matches under Fabio Capello.

The team are already taking a shoe-ing in other quarters for not setting the world alight in a dead rubber.  Personally, I feel that many of the players should have had more than enough motivation to put in a stellar performance:  a full-house at Wembley; the last competitive game before the World Cup; and those World Cup places up for grabs.

Mostly, they didn’t seize the chance to push their claim for a place in the World Cup squad – demonstrating England’s reliance on the fitness of a few key players.

Peter Crouch rose (no pun intended) to the challenge.  Two goals for the 6’7″ target-man about all you can ask of a striker.

It gives me no pleasure to report that Glen Johnson did not excel as I had hoped he might in a previous blog.

In just the first 20 minutes I counted two occasions where he gave the ball away cheaply which ended in an attacking chance for the opposition.  Fortunately for him Belarus lacked the attacking power to fully punish those errors.  I fear World Cup qualified teams may not be so generous.

Ben Foster made one excellent eye-catching save – another dent to Rob Green’s World Cup hopes and his relationship with Rio Ferdinand.

But England have qualified.  Mission accomplished – in some style too.  Next blog I’ll pick my England squad for South Africa – and I’ll predict Capello’s too.

Rio’s blues could cost Green

Rio Ferdinand is currently being hauled over the coals after his chronic lapse in the match against Ukraine.   Many are questioning his place in the team if not the squad – at least until he’s 100% fit, both physically and mentally.

However, Rio’s lapse which resulted in Rob Green’s red card (the first England goalkeeper to be sent off) – and it’s the West Ham man who may end up paying the price for Ferdinand’s all too familiar lapse in concentration.

Green was just starting to establish himself in the England team.  Having been picked ahead of the returning David James, Green lined up against Ukraine for his sixth consecutive England cap.  His run started back in June, away to Kazakhstan and quadrupled Green’s caps – from two to eight.

After the much trumpeted Ben Foster has flattered to deceive for both club and country Green found himself in the box seat to be James’ understudy for the World Cup in South Africa.

Indeed, by picking Green ahead of the fit-again James, England boss Fabio Capello had sent a clear message that even the seemingly inked in James’ place wasn’t safe.  James had lost his place through injury and Green, stepping into the breach had performed well – he deserved to keep his place.

It was a smart bit of management by Capello – the message being: “Take your chance when it comes and World Cup places are still up for grabs.”  With the likes of Joe Cole, Michael Owen, Gabriel Agbonlahor and many more setting their sights on South Africa this was a great carrot dangled by the gaffer.

Thirteen minutes into the action in Dnipropetrovsk, Artem Milevskiy was in a heap and Green’s World Cup dreams hang by a thread.   Ferdinand stood, statue-like watching as Milevskiy darted past him, exposing Green horribly.

James was called on from the bench (also denting Aaron Lennon’s World Cup hopes as he was sacrificed) and Green is now suspended for the only remaining competitive match before the World Cup.  The errant Foster has been recalled to the squad for the match against Belarus.

Portsmouth ‘keeper James is still the most likely to start between the posts when England’s World Cup campaign kicks-off.  However, as recent knocks have shown James is becoming more injury prone as he ages – and as we all know only too well every knock seems to take longer to heal with every passing year.

Green position as first alternative looked assured after some steady performances in James’ absence.  However, the Hammers’ stopper still lacks top level experience – not helped by his dismissal and subsequent suspension.  Assuming he makes Capello’s squad he’ll have only eight caps – plus any more he can glean in the meaningless friendlies before the tournament.

Should the worst happen and James pick up a knock during the tournament would you pitch in a relative novice against the likes of Brazil or Germany?  The prospects of the much improved (and 40-capped) Paul Robinson are looking healthier by the day.

England: the hype starts here

That was pretty impressive, wasn’t it?

England spank Croatia 5-1 and once again the monochrome Three Lions support system kicks in.

Everything is either black or white.   Black: the team/manager/formation/kit/boots/captain are terrible and must go or the pendulum swings to the complete opposite and suddenly England are world-beaters and need only turn up in South Africa to walk away with the World Cup trophy.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m as fervent an England fan as the next guy.   I was cheering along with the rest of the pub when footballing karma was repaid in glorious revenge-cash when the Croat ‘keeper air-kicked to gift Rooney the fifth goal.

It also shows was a massive difference a good manager can make.  Compared to Steve McLaren’s team, beaten 3-2 by Croatia the England personnel are not all that different.  Gerrard, Barry, Lampard, Defoe, Ashley Cole – all were part of that team KO’d from the Euro 2008 qualifiers.

That Croatia team were also much stronger.  On Wednesday night, compared to the McLaren-tamers Slaven Bilic was shorn of: both Kovacs (Robert and Nico), Modric, Corluka, Simic and Srna.  England were stronger but Croatia were weaker – both in resources and tactics.

Fabio Capello still has many questions to answer:

Impressive as Glen Johnson looked, galloping down the right last night his defensive inadequacies have already been covered in detail elsewhere.

The thought of him coming up against a decent left winger fills me with dread.  If Lionel Messi and Argentina failing to qualify it could be the most significant factor in Johnson’s impact in South Africa next year.

Speaking of left wingers, Steven Gerrard is many things but not a left winger.  His free role, inter-changing with Rooney is a potent attacking weapon.   Both players revel in the freedom but with Ashley Cole another rampaging full-back England’s left flank is left achingly exposed at times.

Emile Heskey‘s “contribution to the team” is often held up as a defence to his lack of contribution to the ‘Goals For’ tally.  Capello will be all too aware that England cannot afford to carry any passengers if they’re to make the later stages of the tournament.  A striker who carries about as much goal-threat as the physios bag is a passenger, no matter his “contribution”.

Centre back is another problem area.  Rio Ferdinand and John Terry are first-class if liable to the odd lapse in concentration.  Matthew Upson and Joleon Lescott represent a huge gulf in glass from first choice to back-up.

Upson’s distribution is a constant catastrophe waiting to happen and Lescott’s positioning is seriously lacking – and at times he makes Ferdinand look like a studied scholar in terms of concentration.

All these problems will be brushed aside – and well they should be.  Now is the time for the team to bask in the celebration of their efforts.  The really hard work starts in 2010.