By Ollie Irish
On this form England will do well to get out of their World Cup group. They were way below-par against a competitive, tenacious Japanese side, with several players harming their chances of making the final 23 – stand up (or sit down, indeed) Darren Bent and Tom Huddlestone, both of whom will now miss out. Emile Heskey came on, missed a sitter with his bonce but no doubt he’ll still travel to South Africa. Go figure.
It’s so difficult to judge the value of friendlies in general, but I admit they are more important so close to a major tournament. I’m sure Fabio Capello will not tolerate such a dismal performance in a meaningful match next month (the WC qualifying campaign has shown that already), but today England’s stars played like strangers in a pub team, notably in a shockingly bad first-half display.
Still, to look on the bright side, Joe Hart and Joe Cole both caught the eye in a much more encouraging second half, and Cole must now have moved ahead of Adam Johnson – who, surprisingly, did not figure at all – in Capello’s book. Compared with Theo Walcott, for example, Cole’s football ability is so blatantly superior. I would take Cole and Johnson and leave Walcott, who seems to have little confidence right now. And whither Michael Dawson and Scott Parker? Would have been nice to see both in the last two games, even coming off the bench.
In goal, Hart looked very comfortable and appears to have the temperament to cope well with international football – he played with a smile on his face too, and I wish more English players, visibly uptight in an England kit, would do the same. Seasoned Prem watchers know Hart has all the ability, if not the top-level experience, and I’d like to see the Man City keeper installed as England’s No.1.
All this said, England won. Let’s not overlook that. Their goals were ugly own goals, but they won, against a fellow World Cup competitor, and enjoyed more possession and created more chances. Spain only just beat Saudi Arabia earlier this weekend, Serbia lost at home to New Zealand… no one is saying Spain can’t win the tournament, or that Serbia are suddenly shite.
With a motivated first XI in place, I’m confident England would have beaten Japan by a bigger margin and with a much better performance. So let’s not weep into our lagers, eh, or forget how impressively we qualified for the World Cup. It’s way too early to abandon hope – if we lose 1-0 to the States, I will change my tune, obviously.
With the glass half empty though, you have to question Capello for leaving it so late to experiment with fringe players. Surely he should be using these games to take a closer look at his best side? Still, I like to think the guy knows what he’s doing. Gulp.
The seven who I predict will miss out:
Stephen Warnock, Michael Dawson, Matthew Upson, Scott Parker, Tom Huddlestone, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Darren Bent (if Capello trusts the fitness of his frontline defenders)
Stephen Warnock, Michael Dawson, Scott Parker, Tom Huddlestone, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Adam Johnson, Darren Bent (if Capello goes for eight defenders, rather than seven)
I really hope Capello takes Adam Johnson as a wildcard.