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Monday, 28 March 2011

Welsh collapse tempers England praise

Bent's goal wrapped up the points for England after 14 minutes
It was confident. It was clinical. It was frustratingly unfulfilling.

There was much to commend about England's win at a sell-out Millennium Stadium on Saturday. The likes of Ashley Young, Darren Bent and Scott Parker all showed signs that they are finally feeling at home wearing the three lions, while Jack Wilshere offered further proof that he is not merely the future of the national team, but rather a key part of its present.

John Terry produced the kind of dominant and uncompromising display which lended weight to the arguments of both those who agree with Capello's decison to reinstate him as captain and those (like myself) who are of the view that he should never have been parted from the armband in the first place.

Capello's experimental 4-3-3 formation was also a pretty unqualified success, thanks in large part to prudent choice of personnel - the discipline of Parker allowed the more creative instincts of Wilshere to roam unchecked, while the attacking disposition of full-backs Cole and Johnson ensured England never lacked for width.

Above all, it was the steely resolve with which England took to their task in the opening moments which most impressed. In an intensely hostile atmosphere rife for intimidation, the visitors remained unbowed, and ruthlessly dispatched their opponents inside the first 15 minutes.

From the moment Darren Bent followed Frank Lampard's confidently taken penalty by sweeping home Ashley Young's cross, England never looked anything other than home and dry. The intensity among the players dropped off as they sensed victory; an instinct for self-preservation emerging as some of the Premier League's big names took the opportunity to conserve energy for crucial club battles ahead.

The only bum note struck from then on was the stupid booking picked up by Wayne Rooney for a needless foul on Joe Ledley, which rules him out of Switzerland's visit to Wembley in June.

But even that may eventually play out to England's advantage, for Capello will fancy his side's chances of seeing off the uninspired Swiss even without his star man, and suspension may grant Rooney the summer break he seemingly needs to emerge fit and firing from the most frustrating twelve months of his career to date.

After the bright opening in which the game was won, it was, in essence, a walk in the park for England. And that is the problem.

For the bottom line, harsh though it is, is this: England won convincingly and impressively, but against an opposition who were so passive, so toothless, so devoid of quality of any kind that it rendered the achievement almost insignificant. But it could have been so different. 

Gary Speed's young Wales team had a rare opportunity on Saturday. It was not simply a matter of pouring misery on 'the old enemy' in front of legions of their countrymen and heaping the pressure on Fabio Capello at the end of a week in which his stock had fallen even further with his ham-fisted treatment of the captaincy saga.

It was a matter of reassuring the Welsh fans after a disastrous start to Euro 2012 qualification that there is, after all, reason to be optimistic for the future of their national team.

It was a test which should have been a cause for Welsh inspiration; instead, it bred self-destruction - first through James Collins' clumsy hack on Ashley Young after the big centre-half had been caught badly out of position, and then through defensive organisation which wouldn't have looked out of place on the school playground as Darren Bent gleefully tapped home his third - and simplest - international goal.

Aaron Ramsey looked overburdened by the responsibility of captaincy in what remains early days after his horrific leg break last year. A bad combination of ring-rusty and overly-ambitious in possession, he toiled gamely throughout, but to no avail. There is little doubt the 20-year-old will grow into his new role, but a home nations grudge match against England was always likely to prove a baptism of fire.

And while much was made pre-match about the absence of Gareth Bale through injury, it is unlikely that Spurs' flying winger would have been able to significantly affect its outcome, no matter how devastating he has looked this season. That he would have significantly enhanced the threat of the Welsh attack is undoubted, but must also be tempered with the knowledge that the defence would have been no less porous in the face of English pressure.

If Gary Speed was under any illusions as to the size of the task facing him with the Welsh national team, he is perfectly aware now.

Out-thought, out-fought and out-played in each of their first four group matches and with their dreams of qualification already dead, the 41-year-old must now rebuild this young team's fragile confidence and try to create a new mood of optimism in the group before the race for Brazil 2014 begins. On recent evidence, it will be a long, hard road.

There is of course, the argument that England forced their opponents to play badly through superior organisation, pressure, and work rate. It is has an element of truth to it.

But Wales are a team ranked 116th in the world by FIFA. They had lost their opening three qualification games prior to Saturday's clash, and their starting XI was one which, aside from a few notable exceptions, consisted of players plying their trade in the football league. Such a team would require no great encouragement to play badly from the group of established Premier League names Fabio Capello was able to field. And, as it turned out, they didn't.

Victory at the Millennium Stadium, and the manner in which it was achieved, does not even consitute the best performance of England's qualification run thus far. Both the demolition of Bulgaria at Wembley last September and the triumph over Switzerland in Basel four days later were more comprehensive scorelines over teams vastly superior to Wales.

Those results failed to capture the public imagination for two reasons: firstly, because the games followed hot on the heels of the disappointment of South Africa and were achieved by largely the same team which had been responsible for it; and secondly, because any progress thought to have been made in those matches was quickly exposed as another false dawn by frustrating stalemate at home to Montenegro a month later, followed by a friendly defeat to France which was far more comprehensive than the 1-2 scoreline suggested.

Of course, there is plenty to suggest genuine progress is being made this time. Half the players in the squad Capello picked to face Wales were not involved at the World Cup.

Moreover, these new faces have not just been included to make up the numbers - Hart, Dawson, Wilshere, Young and Bent are making compelling arguments to become permanent components of the spine of the team, and it is to be hoped that the likes of Parker, Carroll and Adam Johnson can go on to do the same in the coming weeks and months.

But it is frustrating that Fabio Capello's brave new faces were not significantly tested on Saturday, and that the match could not tell us anything substantial about whether they or the tactics employed could work against more formidable opposition.

Perhaps Ghana at Wembley on Tuesday, friendly though it is, will provide a better indicator. What is certain, however, is that sterner examinations must be passed by Capello and his men if England fans are truly to be convinced that better times lie ahead.

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