Robert Green was the safe choice. There were questions over David James’s fitness after a season that saw his club side relegated. Joe Hart had a great season on loan at Birmingham City but there were valid concerns over his lack of experience. Green had been a mainstay during qualification and evidently had Capello’s trust. How inevitable then that it would be his catastrophic individual error that denied England victory in Rustenberg.
It was just the latest in a series of hopeful US shots from distance, in a match in which England seemed comfortable. Five minutes from time Clint Dempsey turned and struck a low shot from almost 30 yards out. It bounced twice on its way to Green, who had clear sight of the ball from the moment it left Dempsey’s boot. Yet he failed to get his whole body behind the shot and it bounced off his hands into the net. Replays from the side showed that as it happened Green uttered a similar expletive to most of his countrymen back home.
England were well worth their lead until Green’s personal disaster. Barely four minutes had pass when Emile Heskey put Gerrard clean through with a sweet reverse pass. Gerrard pushed the ball past the advancing Tim Howard to give his side the lead. Not that I personally saw the goal: broadcaster ITV1 HD showed a Glen Johnson throw-in, then ten seconds of a Hyundai advert, an ITV splash screen, five or six seconds of nothing at all, then England celebrating. Some kind soul filmed the moment and has stuck it on youtube. ITV have previous – they cut to an ad break two minutes before the end of an Everton v Liverpool FA Cup tie and missed the only goal of the game – so someone in the editing suite is probably on a final warning after this.
While Capello couldn’t be blamed for Green’s error, his selection of James Milner was questionable. The Aston Villa utility man had been struggling all week with a virus and was clearly off the pace here, picking up a yellow card inside half an hour for persistently fouling his opponents on the England left, Landon Donovan and Steve Cherundolo. Capello reacted well, withdrawing Milner after just half an hour, Shaun Wright Phillips replacing him on the left wing.
England looked comfortable enough throughout the first half, failing to build on their early lead but dealing with the USA attacks, mostly restricting them to shots from distance which Green, at least at first, was equal to. Capello’s side were happy to be going in to half time with the lead but Green’s error changed all that.
To make matters worse Ledley King failed to appear for the second half, a groin injury forcing the inclusion of Jamie Carragher alongside John Terry, forming surely the slowest central defensive partnership at the World Cup. This allowed Jozy Altidore to come into the game more as the second half progressed, and Rob Green atoned for his earlier error, doing well to tip an Altidore shot onto the post from point-blank range.
Heskey’s assist for the opener must have silenced a few of his critics but he gave them fresh voice when, put clean through by Aaron Lennon, he shot straight down Howard’s throat from close range. Wright Phillips would do the same a few minutes later, before a quiet Rooney flashed a drive just wide from long range.
Both teams seemed to tire as the match progressed and much of the second half was scrappy stuff, with two teams used to playing on the counter finding space at a premium, mostly restricted to shots from distance. The contest petered out and in the final fifteen minutes both teams seemed to have accepted that a draw wasn’t the worst result.
Capello’s big choices now are whether to stick with Green and who, assuming Ledley King is now broken, partners John Terry in central defence in future. The return of Gareth Barry should mean Gerrard resuming his link from the left with Wayne Rooney which paid such dividends in qualifying. He could also do worse than have Heskey spend his week practising one-on-ones with the goalkeeper; we may have the best target man at the world cup but it would help if he could score the odd goal.