England 1-0 Slovenia
England qualified for the Round of 16 with a 1-0 victory over Slovenia. However, the United States’ late goal against Algeria means that England finish as runners up and potentially face a difficult Second Round game against Germany in Bloemfontein.
England came into today’s game knowing that they needed to win to secure passage from a group which had been taken too lightly by England.
Both sides started edgily. There were some poor defensive clearances from Glen Johnson, Matthew Upson for England and Cesar for Slovenia.
England were looking very nervous in the opening minutes. John Terry’s backpass giving Matthew Upson a moment of distress.
Slovenia, despite the unprecedentedly high stakes, were the brighter side in the opening ten minutes. Valter Birsa, Slovenia’s standout performer in the tournament, embarked on a series of mazy runs into the England half while his teammates Jovanovic and Kirm were stringing passes together and causing problems for England’s fullbacks.
England eventually settled. Frank Lampard attempted a free-kick from all of 35 yards. The infamous Jabulani changed direction twice before being secured by Samir Handanovic.
Ljubijankic, of KAA Gent, had a great chance to heap further pressure on Fabio Capello’s unimpressive side but was denied by a terrific saving block by John Terry.
James Milner and Jermain Defoe had been brought into the starting line up by Fabio Capello in place of Aaron Lennon and Emile Heskey. The pair justified their selection by combining to give England the lead. Milner, who had been dropped by Fabio Capello for the 0-0 draw with Algeria, supplying the cross for Jermain Defoe who shinned the ball towards goal. Samir Handanovic had been performing superbly for Slovenia but was unable to keep Defoe’s volley out.
The goal seemed to settle England appeared to settle England’s fragile nerves. As it stood England would progress at the head of the Group C table with the Slovenians scraping through as runners up ahead of the United States who were being held 0-0 by Algeria.
Another cross nearly brought England’s second. Handanovic came a long way to palm the swinging pass away but his parry fell only as far as Frank Lampard. The Chelsea midfielder, who had failed to reproduce his club form for his national side, failed to hit the target.
England were keen to press their advantage. Jermain Defoe’s low shot from just outside the penalty area was blocked by Handanovic. Wayne Rooney collected the loose ball and sent a delicate pass across the penalty area for Steven Gerrard. The England captain was unable to convert, as the Udinese goalkeeper managed to keep the ball from crossing the line.
It appeared that Slovenia were finally succumbing to the pressure of the occassion. The quick passing and movement from their earlier games against Algeria and the United States had deserted them as they struggled to control possession. England continued to threaten towards the end of the half but were unable to add to their tally.
Jermain Defoe had a glorious opportunity to score his second goal within forty seconds of the start of the second half. A quickly taken corner fell to the Tottenham Hotspur striker, but Defoe was only able to flick the ball wide with the outside of his boot.
Despite a dramatic deterioration in their form, Slovenia were still posing a threat to England. A terrific inswinging free-kick from Birsa was fisted away by David James. The slightest touch from the flailing right foot of Jovanovic would surely have leveled the game.
Another good delivery from Birsa was caught by David James as Slovenia began to edge back into the match.
John Terry, whose feeble attempt at instigating a squad revolt against Fabio Capello was rebuked by the former Real Madrid manager, came close from a corner. The Chelsea captain thumped a challenging header at Samir Handanovic from Steven Gerrard’s corner.
Wayne Rooney had yet to impress at the World Cup and was discouragingly out of form again this afternoon. The Manchester United striker, with ample time and space, was one-on-one with Handanovic but his poor control and scuffed shot allowed the goalkeeper to glance his shot onto the post. Rooney was later replaced by fan favourite Joe Cole. England’s talisman trudged off the field looking very much like a player short of confidence and the requisite match fitness to excel at a World Cup.
After Rooney’s dismal failure in front of goal England reverted to the same poor football that had shrouded their displays against the United States and Algeria. Long punts up the field from David James were England’s predominant attacking threat from the sixtieth minute onwards.
Slovenia themselves were relatively unthreatening, each foray into England territory was halted by a wayward pass or a poor control. As the scoreboard in Port Elizabeth ticked towards the ninetieth minute, England seemed desperate to cling on to their lead. Emile Heskey was introduced with the sole purpose of reproducing his lumbering attack-quashing form in the defensive third.
Slovenia sent more crosses into the England penalty area but were denied by Matthew Upson and David James, England hung on to secure safe passage to the last sixteen. The players and coaching staff stormed the pitch where excited celebrations followed a n unimpressive victory over a mediocre opponent.
If England are to reach the final, as their optimistic manager predicts, they will need drastic improvement in terms of ball retention and passing speed. As England’s players huddled on the pitch, news filtered through from Pretoria that Landon Donovan had rescued the United States with a stoppage time winner. The goal has severe implications for England’s ambitions. The United States now progress as group winners with the Three Lions facing a monumental task in the Second Round, should Germany beat Ghana tonight.
Fabio Capello expressed his pride in his players’ performances after the final whistle and about how his side played with ‘freedom’. The gushing of a certain gushing member of the British media referred to the win as being ‘more like the England we know.’ If this is the England we can expect in the knockout stages then the quest to end the forty-four year wait for World Cup glory will soon become forty-eight.