Saturday, 4 June 2011

England Stumble After Colliding With A Swiss Roadblock

By Shane Thomas


Only a huge favour from Bulgaria (which I'll get to at the end) kept England at the top of their qualifying group for Euro 2012, after Fabio Capello's men stumbled to a 2-2 draw against Switzerland at Wembley. While the primary emotion would have been frustration, it was probably tinged with relief as England were staring down the barrel of an embarrassing defeat as they were 2-0 down after 35 minutes. There were some interesting contradictions in the post-match comments as Capello bemoaned the fatigue of his players, while captain John Terry refused to use it as an excuse - personally I think they're both right. After a grueling domestic season, England were flat - and looked on their last legs in the final minutes. But this is opposition that they should be defeating comfortably, and despite a lacklustre display that left England fans going home annoyed, they still created more than enough chances to win the game. It was their profligacy - particularly Darren Bent's - that we should criticise rather than the all-round showing.

Switzerland - as one would expect from any team managed by Ottmar Hitzfeld - were well organised with the underrated Gokhan Inler and the ex-West Ham man, Valon Behrami providing their defence with a shield that England found worrisome to breach. Which was just as well as Johan Djourou's amateurish display shows that he hasn't fully recovered from the effect of dislocating his shoulder for Arsenal back in March.

Not only were Switzerland tough to break down, but they passed the ball intelligently. They have a new crop of talented attacking midfielders, led by Tranquillo Barnetta, Granit Xhaka & Xherdan Shaqiri - showing that multi-culturalism is alive & well in the national game. While they had less of the ball, they always looked more threatening than the home side, with striker Eren Derdiyok missing a couple of early half-chances.

In the 32nd minute, Barnetta curled in a dangerous inswinging free-kick from the left-hand side. It was a teasingly dangerous delivery, but Rio Ferdinand should have cleared the danger. As the ball went over the Manchester United defender's head, it crept in at the far post to silence the hitherto enthusiastic Wembley crowd. Some will hold keeper Joe Hart accountable for letting the ball in, and these kind of goals always look bad from the goalkeeper's perspective, but there's little that Hart actually could have done.

But two minutes later, Hart was to blame for England going two goals behind. Barnetta fired in another free-kick from the left towards the near post. Slow to spot the danger, the ball squirmed in off Hart's foot. And at the risk of being accused of picking on Manchester City, James Milner deserves as much opprobrium heaped on him as he inexplicably broke from the defensive wall, allowing Barnetta's shot to threaten the England goal.

England were on the floor, and Jack Wilshere took it upon himself to pick the team up. He'd been anonymous up to then. But from the resultant kick-off, he drove at the Swiss defence, and after his shot was blocked, he showed great presence of mind to dribble clear of club teammate Djourou in the penalty area. Djourou brought Wilshere down and the referee (who had a pretty poor game) gave England the penalty. Frank Lampard squeezed his spot-kick under the body of Diego Benaglio to give England hope.

It was the Chelsea midfielder's last contribution of the match as he was substituted for Ashley Young at half-time. Young's exclusion from the starting line-up surprised many, and this was only reconfirmed by a delightful goal from Young to equalise. A clever ball from Milner was cushioned down by Leighton Baines into the Aston Villa man's path, but he still had plenty to do. Young's first time volley was one of a man full of confidence and it found the far corner to even the contest.

It was the best football of the game, and with 40 minutes still to play, England looked in a good position to win the match. They had a much better attitude, pressed the ball with increased intensity, and moved the ball at a quicker tempo. It was like watching a fighter get off the ropes to make a thrilling comeback.

But England still needed that third goal. And they used every last drop of energy trying to get it. Wilshere still wasn't influencing the game as he can, but a glorious dribble and through-ball played Darren Bent clear. To the surprise of everyone in the stadium he failed to beat Benaglio, but it was nothing compared to the state of shock they were in six minutes later.

An incisive dribble from Young took him to the edge of the penalty area. His shot was saved, but fell into Bent's path. With Benaglio stranded on the floor, all the striker had to do was tap the ball into the gaping net. But it hit a slight bobble in the pitch, struck Bent on the left ankle and ballooned over the top. While it seems that the Wembley surface still has a few problems to be ironed out, that doesn't excuse Bent's miss.

And it looked to have knocked the stuffing out of England. As the players grew ever more fatigued, their threat dissipated. Switzerland looked increasingly dangerous on the counter, and almost got a winning goal of their own. However, in the last minute of stoppage time, a hopeful high ball was won by Rio Ferdinand. It dropped perfectly into the path of substitute Stewart Downing. But the winger hit the side netting when he should have scored easily. It was the final kick of the match and the game ended 2-2.

In a group that England should be making easy work of, this was a poor result. Dropping two points meant that they surrendered control of the group to Montenegro, who played Bulgaria a few hours later. However, Bulgaria did England a massive favour by getting a 1-1 draw. This means England remain top of Group G, and seven points from their final three games will take them to the Euro 2012 Finals in the Ukraine & Poland. While England should manage to accomplish this, they are making hard work of what should have been a routine qualification process.

And with that, the 2010/11 football season is done. Can't believe I'm quoting ITV Sport, but as Matt Smith said, "England are now off for the summer. If they're not careful, they'll be off next summer too."

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