Article by Ben Dixon
So International Football is back in our lives. Barely 2 months after England suffered penalty heartbreak in Kyiv to the hands of Italy, another journey is beginning. The Road To Rio as FIFA like to call it. And by the looks of the two games we've seen so far, it could be a very long and winding road to Rio. Granted there were a lot of big names missing most notably Wayne Rooney who is still out with his 'nasty graze' as Match of the Day commentator Guy Mowbray called it, and Ashley Cole with his sore ankle. The fact that it was a relatively new-look England side wouldn't have helped matters either and the lack of chemistry was clear to be seen on Tuesday evening.
But it all started on Friday with a trek to Eastern Europe to face the footballing giants Moldova. Ranked 141st in the world by FIFA which means absolutely jack-all considering they seem to think England are the 3rd best team in the world??? Nice one Sepp. But nethertheless, it was still 11v11 and as all fans know, anything can happen in football. But there was no upset this time. The match was pretty much sorted after the 3rd minute when the referee harshly adjudged a Moldovan player to have handled the ball in the penalty area from all of 2 yards away from Tom Cleverly's boot. But we didn't care. Frank Lampard dispatched the penalty with no issues and England were 1-0 up. Many were expecting a rugby or possibly even a low cricket score now but they had reckoned without one thing. Roy Hodgson's tactics. So it took another 25 minutes to get the second goal, a stooping Frank Lampard header across the goalkeeper into the side of the net. Then less than 3 minutes later it was three. A strikers finish from Jermaine Defoe who looks like he might be getting a deserved run in the team. The goalie will have been disappointed by letting it slide under him but Defoe won't have cared. Then came the lull that England fans have come to expect from their national team. Misplaced passes, missed chances and just a lack of enthusiasm yet again left goal hungry fans asking themselves 'How much do they get paid?' This continued until the 80th minute when ex-Leeds James Milner dispatched a cut back into the bottom corner of the net. It would have stayed that way but for a very fortunate Leighton Baines free-kick which took a huge deflection and just dropped into the bottom corner of the net, completely wrong footing the keeper. It was by no means the best England performance I've seen but as the ITV commentators repeatedly pointed out, 'You can only beat what's put in front of you'.
Tuesday night brought a much sterner test in the form of Ukraine, a team we only just beat with the help of a lucky Rooney goal and a blind assistant linesman at Euro 2012. Could England prove doubters wrong and give a good and convincing performance against a team that isn't made up of milkmen and electricians? Well in short, No. Lacking creativity and zest England were labouring around the pitch looking like they'd rather be shagging each others wife's than playing football. Then came the moment it could have all been forgiven and forgotten. An inch perfect cross straight onto Defoe's head. He should have buried it there and then but horribly scuffed his header (if that's even possible) straight to Manchester United's Tom Cleverly which tells you all you need to know. With the goal gaping he manages to put the ball towards the 5% that the goalkeeper is stood motionless in front of. Disbelief filled the stadium and you could almost hear the whole country saying 'My granny could've scored that'. And it's true, she probably could have done. But not a professional football player getting paid tens of thousands of pounds per week. 5 minutes after this golden chance to take control of the game, Ukraine are leading. And what a way to take the lead. Konoplienka collected the ball near the touchline, cut inside onto his favoured right foot and lashes the swerving, dipping ball into the top corner leaving Wembley silent with most of the fans admiring the goal that had just been scored. Joe Hart stood no chance. 1-0 Ukraine, and that's how it stayed until half time.
Into the second half and England looked void of ideas. Pass after pass went astray leaving England fans all over the country asking 'How hard can it be?' This went on and on until Woy had a tactical brainwave. Stick another striker on in the shape of Danny Welbeck. This brought England alive and suddenly passes were finding their target, chances were being created and the crowd came alive. Downside was that the chances weren't being put away. Welbeck being the main culprit As the seconds ticked away so did England's chances of remaining unbeaten. But then came the goal. Another penalty, from another handball and as soon as you saw Frankie Lamps stepping up you knew it was 1-1. And so it proved. Nailed down the middle and England had a deserved point. A minor low was the unnecessary sending off of Steven Gerrard which means he'll miss the 'Match You Can't Afford To Miss' as advertised by the FA. Who could this unmissable match be against? Spain? Holland? Germany? No, none of these teams. A country that wouldn't spring to mind when you thought of unmissable. San Marino. Unlucky Stevie. You'll have to miss it. Bet he's gutted.
So 4 points out of 6 in 'The Road to Rio' so far but by no means in convincing fashion. Some might say I'm being harsh as we won 5-0. But England still managed to make 5-0 boring and unconvincing. And it was against Moldova. Qualifying from this group as winners should be no problem and I'm sure it won't be. But I'm just getting a niggling feeling in the back of my mind that there could be another 'Wally with the Brolly' night come November 2013. And no-one wants that.